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The 10 best films of 2020

It’s been a strange year for cinema – from Small Axe to Saint Maud, we pick out the movies that have made an impact in 2020

Want to feel old? Only 10 months ago, Parasite won the Best Picture Oscar. Want to feel sad? Only nine months ago, Parasite broke the UK’s box office record for a non-English language film. Believe it or not, in early March, there was reason to be optimistic about the future of cinema. Now, in December, the theatrical experience is in trouble, and HBO Max are planning to upload Dune and The Matrix 4 online as if they were Hot Ones videos. If the AT&T-owned streaming service could remove “cinema” from the dictionary, they probably would.

Dune, funnily enough, in a non-COVID world, would already be on its fifth wave of backlashes by now, and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, which was meant to come out in July, would already have Blu-Ray copies being flogged on eBay. Other fully finished films delayed due to the pandemic include Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island, Leos Carax’s Annette, and Nia DaCosta’s Candyman remake. It hurts just to think about it – they remade Candyman? (No, we are actually really excited to see it.)

Still, in a year that was unprecedented, streaming has proved to be a saviour when it doesn’t involve hurting Denis Villeneuve’s feelings. Film festivals ran virtual screenings and were more accessible than ever, and our time stuck indoors (maybe this was the year of Parasite, after all) was soothed by the high quality art delivered straight to our laptops. Increasingly, the lines are blurring between TV and movies: The Queen’s Gambit is a series you binge like a six-hour film, while The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a chore you consume in 10-minute, Quibi-style chunks to keep up with the cultural conversation about whether it’s very bad or just simply quite bad.

Fittingly, then, the best film of the year was arguably an episode of a TV series, and, unless you were at the BFI for its one-off London Film Festival screening, you almost certainly watched it at home. As for the rest of our list, we’ve gone with the tradition of picking films that received their world premiere in 2020, although we’ve made two exceptions for Rocks and Saint Maud which both played festivals last year but only came out in the UK in recent months. Scroll down to read our ranked list of the best films of the year – there’s plenty to legally stream before you resort to Disney+.

10. SAINT MAUD (dir. Rose Glass)

At only 84 minutes in length, Saint Maud is an assured, compelling horror movie that doesn’t waste a frame. And, oh, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Morfydd Clark plays Maud, a nurse who her patient, Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), refers to as “the loneliest girl I’ve ever seen”. Maud may be lonely, yes, but she’s on a mission from God to save the world – at least, that’s what the voice in her head is saying. At no point does Glass make fun of Maud’s mental health issues and the film demonstrates how easily someone in a busy city can still be friendless and suffering on their own. As a bonus, it features the most effective jump scare in recent memory.

Saint Maud is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD in February. Read our interview with Rose Glass here.

9. SUMMER OF ’85 (dir. François Ozon)

Sex, death, and self-discovery have long been key themes throughout François Ozon’s typically twisty filmography. In Summer of ’85, though, the one-time “bad boy of French cinema” tackles his career-long obsessions through the simpler prism of a gay, coming-of-age love story. Well, not that simple. Alexis (Félix Lefebvre) is a teenager about to face a judge for an unnamed crime related to the death of dreamy David (Benjamin Voisin). Thus, in the non-chronological narrative, the meet-cute between Alexis and David and their subsequent sunkissed romance is laced with mystery and suspense. In typical Ozon fashion, nothing is as you’d expect, and the second half spins off in a heart-wrenching direction that even the most seasoned Ozon fan could not predict.

Summer of ’85 can be streamed now on Curzon Home Cinema. Read our interview with François Ozon here.

8. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS (dir. Eliza Hittman)

Before Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sidney Flanagan had never acted before. Not that you’d guess from her moving portrayal of Autumn, a 17-year-old girl travelling from Pennsylvania to New York for an abortion. On this emotionally draining journey, Autumn is accompanied by her cousin, Skylar (Talia Ryder), and the pair trudge through public transport with the weight of an unjust world on their shoulders. For instance, the title refers to a mandatory box-ticking survey in which a stranger at a clinic quizzes Autumn on her sexual activity, and the latter just gets on with it. Hittman, who also directed Beach Rats, keeps the camera close to the leads and ensures each scene feels authentic and heartfelt.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always can be streamed now on VOD platforms. Read our interview with Sidney Flanagan here.

7. ROCKS (dir. Sarah Gavron)

In order to cast Rocks, Sarah Gavron and her team spent a year visiting classrooms in Hackney and workshopping with non-actors to test their chemistry. The result is an authentic, joyful celebration of girlhood, starring a talented group of first-time performers whose natural charisma can’t be taught in drama school. When 15-year-old Rocks (Bukky Bakray) and her younger brother are abandoned by their mother, the young duo hide from social services and must fend for themselves – such methods including crashing at a friend’s house and resorting to theft. Yet despite the hardship, Rocks maintains a positive attitude, and her spirits are boosted by a friendship group so warm and supportive that it’ll move you to tears.

Rocks can be streamed now on Netflix. Read our interview with the actors here.

6. UNDINE (dir. Christian Petzold)

In the centuries the undine myth has existed, erotically charged lectures on architecture have rarely been a factor. Credit to Christian Petzold, then, for reworking a supernatural tale into a slippery, Berlin-set romance between Undine (Paula Beer), a museum worker with a watery history, and Christoph (Franz Rogowski), a man infatuated by Undine’s descriptions of how crumbling buildings impact our daily lives. Like Petzold’s Transit, which also starred Beer and Rogowski, Undine obsesses over how the past haunts the present, and the fantastical, lyrical narrative dives into the weirdest corners of the German auteur’s career. It’s the kind of film that lingers in your mind long after the credits – not just because you have to Google what an undine actually is.

Undine will be released in UK cinemas in 2021.

5. PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (dir. Emerald Fennell)

When Emerald Fennell’s feminist revenge-thriller comes out in February, one scene in particular will spark weeks, if not months, of arguments. Which is to say that Fennell, who was a showrunner on Killing Eve, knowingly takes risks with a provocative story that blends sharp-witted comedy with genuine horror in its exploration of male-inflicted trauma. In the lead role of Cassie, Carey Mulligan is like you’ve never seen her before; by day, Cassie is a barista who spits in your coffee, but by night she’s teaching predatory men a lesson. While the film divided viewers at Sundance, the pop soundtrack has received deserved, unanimous praise: Charli XCX’s “Boys”, Paris Hilton’s “Stars are Blind”, and a new, ultra-slow take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic”.

Promising Young Woman will be released in UK cinemas in February.

4. POSSESSOR (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

A kinky, psychedelic, sci-fi body-horror about gender fluidity and losing control of your mind from David Cronenberg’s son? Yes, please. Starring Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott, Brandon Cronenberg’s gruesome thriller makes for a head-spinning counterpart to i’m thinking of ending things. Like Kaufman’s movie, Possessor involves living inside someone else’s brain, except here Riseborough is an assassin who puts on a headset and puppeteers Abbott into a jittery killing machine. The social satire is sharp, the violence is shocking enough that cut and uncut versions exist, and the ingenious premise presents the notion that adults are simply roleplaying their way through meaningless lives. Frankly, in 2020, few films have struck a chord as painfully and truthfully as this.

Possessor can be streamed now on VOD platforms. Read our interview with Brandon Cronenberg, Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott here.

3. NOMADLAND (dir. Chloé Zhao)

In some ways, Nomadland sounds like Borat: a hugely topical, semi-improvised road movie in which an A-list Hollywood star drives around the outskirts of America and interacts with non-actors playing themselves in order to create empathy and understand who’s been left behind by modern society. But whereas Borat is a contender for the worst film of 2020, Nomadland is an emotionally searing, meditative drama and a vehicle for Frances McDormand in a career-defining role. McDormand plays Fern, a woman who insists she’s houseless, not homeless, as she ekes out an existence in a van in between low-paid warehouse jobs. Chloé Zhao’s screenplay eschews the three-act structure in favour of a patient, freewheeling narrative and, due to the weird Oscar season, it’s an arthouse movie with the promotional budget of a mainstream release.

Nomadland will be released in UK cinemas in February. Look out for our upcoming interview with Chloé Zhao.

2. I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Charlie Kaufman’s first live-action feature in 12 years not only exceeded expectations, but it confounded everyone – including its admirers. Three months on, I’m still thinking of things in i’m thinking of ending things, and after five viewings I’ve barely scraped the surface. The twisty, hypnotic psychodrama follows a couple (Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons) as they drive through snow and argue about pigs, physics, and Pauline Kael. Here, time doesn’t exist; the ASMR-y soundscape emulates how our brains think and scenes are paced like memories. Imagine Peep Show directed by David Lynch and then filter it through the writer of Being John Malkovich.

Multiple theories exist. It’s all in a school caretaker’s head. It’s a critique of toxic masculinity. It’s a satire of living one’s life through pop culture (did you spot that the climax is a nearly frame-for-frame pastiche of A Beautiful Mind?). It’s The 3 from Adaptation brought to life. It’s a filmmaker visualising his fear of growing old and being forgotten. Most likely, it’s all of these at the same time, but who really knows? Kaufman himself told us: “My goal is to give people something that resonates with them at different points of their lives. There are things you won’t see the first time that you’ll see the second time, and so on.”

i’m thinking of ending things can be streamed now on Netflix. Read our interview with Charlie Kaufman, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons here.

1. LOVERS ROCK (dir. Steve McQueen)

Both cinematic and perfect to play in your living room, Lovers Rock is a transcendent work of art to be rewatched and relistened to like a piece of music. The story, if you can call it that, revolves around a Notting Hill house party in 1980, and, if you turn up the volume, it’s as if you’re there too. Once the DJ’s playing reggae hits, the events sit somewhere between a concert film and emulating the thrills of an immersive theatre show. Everywhere you look, there’s drama: in the toilet queue, by the staircase, or even how many centimetres someone places their hands down a dance partner’s waist. Sweat drips down the wall, each person clearly has their own story to tell.

For context, Lovers Rock, which is a standalone story, is the second part of Steve McQueen’s five-film Small Axe anthology. Each episode of Small Axe tackles a different aspect of Black Britain in the past, and Lovers Rock does so with catharsis and joy. The dialogue-free dance sequences are presumably planned meticulously, yet they explode with spontaneity, whether it’s a tender, female-sung acapella rendition of “Silly Games”, or fired-up men stomping on the floor to the dub beat of “Kunta Kinte”. Away from the loudspeakers, the non-diegetic, original score is composed by Mica Levi.

However, Lovers Rock isn’t all fun and singing “Silly Games”. Indoors, in a safe space, Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) is surrounded by Black partygoers; when she steps outside, she’s immediately racially harassed by four white men passing by, and the spell is temporarily broken. Still, the camera darts from person to person (the cinematographer cites Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water as an inspiration) and each scene is a myriad of mini-stories told within subtle gestures and human bodies getting lost in the moment. All in all, it’s the best way to spend 70 minutes when you can’t actually go to a party yourself. All that comes close to it is our number two film, and also Red, White and Blue – the third episode of Small Axe.

Lovers Rock can be streamed now on BBC iPlayer. Read our interview with Letitia Wright on Mangrove, the first part of Small Axehere.