The 10 Best Movies Of 2020

Dec 13, 2020
One of a handful of words that have skyrocketed in usage over the past 12 months is 'unprecedented' - it applied to many aspects of 2020 as Covid-19 continued its grim march across the globe, and was certainly felt in the movie industry as cinemas worldwide shut their doors, release dates of big blockbusters were moved, and then moved again, and various streaming companies began gaining more traction, offering a vast selection films that may have been lost amongst the bustle of high profile releases in any other year.

We may not have seen the likes of No Time To Die, Black Widow, Dune, The French Dispatch and - God help us - Venom: Let There Be Carnage in 2020 but when reflecting on what we have had the opportunity to view, it's clear the wealth of ideas and talent and unstoppable creativity remains undiminished, and whatever form the filmmaking world takes once the pandemic begins its retreat, it's still a thriving medium that can generate excitement, emotion and wonder like few others can.

The following are what I consider to be the best 10 movies released in the UK since January 2020...

Da 5 Bloods movie poster

10. DA 5 BLOODS (dir. Spike Lee)
Arriving just a couple of weeks after the killing of George Floyd sparked protests worldwide, Spike Lee's latest joint couldn't have felt any more attuned to the times. Although ostensibly a tale of a group of Black Vietnam veterans returning to what was once a warzone to find buried treasure - a riff on the classic Treasure Of The Sierra Madre - the spectre of racism was never far removed from the action. An excellent cast is headlined by Delroy Lindo, playing a man so haunted by his past that he's leaned into everything he should hate with an almost masochistic glee, and features one of Chadwick Boseman's final, electrifying performances, burning brightly on screen with fiery zeal and intensity. It's messy at times, juggling so many ideas at once, but Lee's conviction and passion are evident throughout, and although not planned to coincide with one of the most galvanizing reactions against bigotry and intolerance in living memory, it ended up being - aside from an engaging, emotionally charged movie - a powerful addition to the headline-grabbing argument that the world really needs to change.

Host movie poster

9. HOST (dir. Rob Savage)
A movie that could only have been made in 2020. A spin on the found footage concept, it utilizes that piece of software that has seen an astronomical uptake as a key form of communication during the pandemic: Zoom. A group of friends arrange an online séance during lockdown, a decision that quickly proves disastrous when an unseen, malevolent presence is unleashed. It's short (just under an hour) but remarkably effective thanks not only to our increased familiarity with the platform but also the naturalistic performances from the cast (real life friends, which shows) and the way the looming sense of dread increases, from bumps in the background to things far, far worse. It cleverly taps into that sense of isolation felt during lockdown and how being in touch digitally can never replace the real thing. And, beyond any timeliness, it's also a damn fine horror movie that will hold up long after the fear of being endlessly trapped within our own four walls is gone.

Trial of the Chicago 7 movie poster

8. THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (dir. Aaron Sorkin)
Courtroom dramas generally have the potential to provide a rousing cinematic experience, pitting justice against injustice in an often binary fashion, with the audience usually in the position of rooting for the defendants. Aaron Sorkin knows this better than anyone else, his breakthrough success as a screenwriter being the cinematic adaptation of his play A Few Good Men, featuring that most quotable of ripostes "You can't handle the truth!". He has gone on to become one of the most revered scribes in the business; his ear for propulsive dialogue nearly unparalleled amongst his peers. Here, in his second stint in the director's chair, he takes on the famous prosecution of the Chicago Seven, who were accused of inciting riots following anti-war protests at the 1969 Democratic National Convention in the Windy City. Sorkin's gift with words is a given and packing his cast with some of the best in the business (including Mark Rylance, Sacha Baron Cohen, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Jeremy Strong and Eddy Redmayne) provides some dynamic results. It may be formulaic, and it may be economical with the truth at points, but it shows that this particular subgenre can still be dynamite in the right hands.

Parasite movie poster

7. PARASITE (dir. Bong Joon-ho)
After travelling across the globe throughout most of 2019, Parasite finally arrived in the UK in February, just a couple of days prior to its history-making Oscar win, by which point it was already a critically lauded sensation which had generated endless articles discussing its importance and meaning. And yet, even after the long wait, it still managed to shock, surprise and delight in equal measure. The metaphorical premise was readily apparent - poor family pose as skilled workers to infiltrate a wealthy family's home - but there was more subtlety and nuance beneath the obvious parasitical relationship that made the film resonate so vividly with audiences across the world. Themes of class, family and prosperity weave through a narrative that allows for a blackly comic playfulness in amongst the more tonally serious approach, occasionally veering closely (and mischievously) towards horror. Bong Joon-ho is building an increasingly impressive filmography and Parasite has proven to be the most universally persuasive testament to his talents yet.

The Invisible Man 2020 movie poster

6. THE INVISIBLE MAN (dir. Leigh Whannell)
Not a remake but a reinvention. Gone are the bandages and shades of the original Universal Claude Rains 1933 movie, based on the H.G. Wells novel, indeed gone is the focus on the titular character himself. Instead, his prime victim takes the starring role, which in this case is Elisabeth Moss, again showing that out of all the cast of Mad Men, she's had the most fascinating and exciting career trajectory. It nestles neatly within the #MeToo movement, tackling the ramifications of sustained abuse and the damaging cycle of scepticism and victim-blaming that can follow, but not by forgoing the required tropes of the horror movie. It's tense, nail biting, and features perhaps the most shocking scene of the year, a jaw-dropping cinematic sleight of hand that highlights director Leigh Whannell's skill at constructing a sequence that misdirects until the final moment. Moss, a bold, versatile actress, holds the attention throughout and elevates the material through a committed performance, her character's burgeoning distress at being dismissed offset by a determination not to let her abuser win. 

Uncut Gems movie poster

5. UNCUT GEMS (dir. Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie)
The cinematic equivalent of a sustained panic attack, Uncut Gems sees Adam Sandler in 'serious actor mode' once again, and he excels in the role of Howard Ratner, a compulsive gambler who seems incapable of knowing when to stop, or even how. As his debts mount - including a cool $100k to his brother-in-law - a rare black opal comes into his possession but leaves just as quickly, triggering a desperate retrieval attempt where things only go from bad to worse. The film combines a sleazy, backstreet energy with an anxiety-inducing ferocity, the Safdie brothers upping the ante considerably following their previous directorial effort Good Times, creating a work of pure freneticism as one crisis snowballs into the next. Ably supported by the likes of Lakeith Stanfield, Eric Bogosian and Julia Fox, Sandler's portrayal of a man orchestrating his own downfall would be almost unbearable to watch if it wasn't such a magnetically charged performance. 

1917 movie poster

4. 1917 (dir. Sam Mendes)
It may have been dismissed by some as akin to a first-person video game, with the 'single take' shot reducing the horror of the trenches to background noise, but most saw it in a substantially more favourable light: the immersive approach generating a visceral reaction in the viewer as the lead characters travel deeper into the ravaged battlefields of France, becoming more affected by the carnage they witness as they go. The 'continuous shot' is far more than a gimmick as it allows for the intensity of each step of the journey to build up an unstoppable, enveloping momentum that's both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure. Director Sam Mendes audacious conceit pays off thanks to the pacing and choreography of each set piece and, in no small part, Roger Deakin's sumptuous cinematography, bringing the chaos of WWI to vivid life; there's beauty in the imagery even when blood and mud dominate. There are some heavyweight cameos (Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch) but it's George MacKay who displays the quiet, reliant humanity required to take the audience through the horrors of the Western Front a century ago.

Tenet movie poster

3. TENET (dir. Christopher Nolan)
The palindromic ingenuity of the plot eluded many critics upon its release, and the ridiculous saving-cinema-from-the-pandemic narrative often overshadowed what Tenet actually was: another excellent example of Christopher Nolan's relentless ambition and audacity in the field of blockbuster moviemaking. Yes, rewatches are of great benefit as the structure of the story gradually reveals itself, but in terms of sheer cinematic spectacle there was nothing that could touch it in 2020. It perhaps doesn't resonate on emotional level as some of Nolan's previous work (and did give more ammunition to those who claim all his films are emotionally cold) but with some great performances from the leads (John David Washington confidently freeing himself from his father's shadow), terrific, exhilarating set pieces and Nolan revisiting one of his most frequent thematic obsessions - time, and our perception of it - Tenet may not have made the global impression it would have done in a normal year but, after much consideration, it ranks as one of the director's best.

Lovers Rock movie poster

2. LOVERS ROCK (dir. Steve McQueen)
Part of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology, this was the definite highlight from the exceptional set of five films. Set across one night in 1980 at a 'blues party' (a pay-to-enter house party in the London's West Indian community), it begins with food being prepared and the sound system being installed, and ends with two young lovers cycling towards the promise of a new dawn. In between is an intoxicating, mesmeric journey through a dancefloor, the camera weaving between the partygoers, where blossoming romances reside next to petty enmities, emotions heightened via the mix of booze, reefer and dub-heavy reggae, leading to a transcendental acapella version of Janet Kay's 'Silly Games' as the sound is turned down but the crowd keep going, transported. Lovers Rock is a sublime paean not only to a specific cultural moment in time that will be unfamiliar to many but also, more universally, the unbridled joy that can only be found on a dancefloor, elevated onto an almost spiritual level by the communal experience of getting lost together in a song.

The Lighthouse movie poster

1. THE LIGHTHOUSE (dir. Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers' follow up to his directorial debut The Witch is a film even more startling and vivid than its predecessor, and, arriving in the UK mere weeks before the country (and most of the world) went into lockdown, its tale of two 18th century lighthouse keepers losing their marbles in isolation turned out to be strikingly prescient. It's unlikely anyone had a similar experience in quarantine to Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson's characters though, as their paranoiac (and often blackly comical) relationship gets increasingly out of control, and inevitably more violent, with the beautifully crisp black and white photography and 4:3 aspect ratio emphasising the claustrophobic nature of their degenerating situation. Ye olde dialogue is delicious, both leads are outstanding (Dafoe edging it thanks to his fearsome monologues) and the whole experience is unique, unsettling and unforgettable.


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