The 25 best films of 2020 – in order

Best of 2020: some remarkable films in a remarkable year
Parasite, Uncut Gems, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, The Invisible Man and more stood out during A landmark year in a few good ways

Looked at from one angle, our annual list of the year’s best films shares much in common with those published before the world succumbed to You Know What.

As ever, a fair proportion of the list emerged in the early months of the year when distributors are trying to attract the attention of awards voters. Most of those films got a decent run in cinemas before the walls came down.

Not unusually, four of our top 10 — Parasite, The Lighthouse, Bacurau and Portrait of a Lady on Fire  premiered more than a year and a half ago at the Cannes Festival. It feels several lifetimes away.

Look closer and you will discover that, for the first time, we are admitting features that debuted on streaming platforms. (Take it up with the good people at the Oscars, who are doing the same thing.) The clearing away of blockbusters opened up space for quirkier independent films to stretch their less pricy wings on smaller screens. What extraordinary variety we ended up with.

A 19th-century literary adaptation, an Irish animation, a Chilean dance extravaganza, a surprising amount of horror — arguably seven out of 25 — and a contender for the most disturbing art film ever screened at a major film festival. All life was here. And a film not in English won the best picture Oscar for the first time in the Academy’s history. Allow poor 2020 to be a landmark year in a few good ways.

25 Virus Tropical

Virus Tropical. Photograph: timboe studio
Virus Tropical. Photograph: timboe studio

Santiago Caicedo
Charming, striking, monochrome animation adapted from Power Paola’s graphic non-fiction novel concerning a childhood in Ecuador and Colombia. Painstaking translations of the original artwork.
Read the full review of Virus Tropical

24 Wolfwalkers

Cartoon Saloon's Wolfwalkers
Cartoon Saloon's Wolfwalkers

Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Cartoon Saloon, out of Kilkenny, deliver their animation yet again with this careering, beautifully painted tale from the Cromwellian atrocities. A folk-horror Inglourious Basterds for all the family.
Read the full review of Wolfwalkers

23 The Vast of Night

Sierra McCormick in The Vast of Night
Sierra McCormick in The Vast of Night

Andrew Patterson
Hugely imaginative, proudly clever retro sci fi set around a US radio station in the 1950s. The story is breathlessly told using bravura dolly action and old-fashioned yarn-spinning sequences.
Read the full review of The Vast of Night

22 Moffie

Kai Brummer in Moffie
Kai Brummer in Moffie

Oliver Hermanus
Surprising study of a young gay man undergoing military service with the South African Defence Forces in the early 1980s. A touching piece of cinema whose beauty complements the ugliness at its heart.
Read the full review of Moffie

21 The Vigil

Keith Thomas
Fascinating, macabre yarn concerning a man keeping vigil over a late member of the Orthodox Jewish community. Terms such as “The Jewish Exorcist” and “The Hasidic Babadook” have been bandied about.
Read the full review of The Vigil

20 Les Misérables

Les Miserables.
Les Miserables.

Ladj Ly
No, it’s not an adaptation of the Hugo novel. Ly’s incendiary film goes among citizens of a rough Parisian suburb as they parry with the police and each other. Tough, but fair minded.
Read the full review of Les Misérables

19 Time

Sibil Fox Richardson in Time
Sibil Fox Richardson in Time

Garrett Bradley
Like Collective above, a contender for documentary of the year, Time pays tribute to Sibil Fox Richardson, a determined African-American woman fighting for her husband’s release from prison.
Read the full review of Time

18 Collective

Alexander Nanau
Nanau’s documentary follows investigations into the 2015 fire in Bucharest that killed 27 people. It ends up as a comprehensive denunciation of the Romanian state apparatus.
Read the full review of Collective

17 Ema

Mariana Di Girolamo shines as the titular character in Pablo Larraín’s Ema.
Mariana Di Girolamo shines as the titular character in Pablo Larraín’s Ema.

Pablo Larraín
Always hard to pin down, Larraín returns with a wild drama that sends a young dancer spinning through the busy streets of a Chilean city. A carnal telenovela in which the lines between dance, sex, and fire-starting are annihilated.
Read the full review of Ema

16 Pinocchio

Roberto Benigni is Gepetto in Pinocchio
Roberto Benigni is Gepetto in Pinocchio

Matteo Garrone
The latest adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic novel emphasises the grimmer sides of the tale. It is icky and surreal, but ultimately rewarding. Roberto Benigni makes a sad Gepetto.
Read the full review of Pinocchio

15 Koko-Di Koko-Da

A scene from 	‘Koko-di Koko-da’
A scene from ‘Koko-di Koko-da’

Johannes Nyholm
What the heck is this? Grieving parents are stalked by nursery rhyme creatures and man with a bull terrier. Only in 2020.
Read the full review of Koko-Di Koko-Da

14 Vitalina Varela

Ventura and Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela. Photograph: Leonardo Simoes/Zeta Filmes
Ventura and Vitalina Varela in Vitalina Varela. Photograph: Leonardo Simoes/Zeta Filmes

Pedro Costa
Costa surpasses himself with this rigorous, sombrely lit portrait of a woman moving from Cape Verde to the outskirts of Lisbon. Inky.
Read the full review of Vitalina Varela

13 The Invisible Man

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man (2020). Photograph: Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures
Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man (2020). Photograph: Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures

Leigh Whannell
This is how you update classic horror. Elisabeth Moss is electric in an economic (in all senses) take on HG Wells that addresses domestic abuse. Thrilling.
Read the full review of The Invisible Man

12 She Dies Tomorrow

Kate Lyn Sheil in She Dies Tomorrow
Kate Lyn Sheil in She Dies Tomorrow

Amy Seimetz
Singular existential horror (for once that e-word is unavoidable) concerning a young woman who wakes up convinced she will, yes, die tomorrow.
Read the full review of She Dies Tomorrow

11 About Endlessness

About Endlessness: A couple float over a meticulous miniature set of bombed-out Cologne
About Endlessness: A couple float over a meticulous miniature set of bombed-out Cologne

Roy Andersson
We know what to expect from Andersson: dry comedy, mortal despair, geometrically balanced sets … and sheer brilliance.
Read the full review of About Endlessness

10 Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always

Eliza Hittman
A young woman travels to New York City for an abortion in a naturalistic film that makes no judgements. The title references one of the year’s most heart-rending scenes.
Read the full review of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always

9 Relic

Relic
Relic

Natalie Erika James
Singular Australian horror film that skilfully touches on the trials of dementia on its way to a bleak denouement. Motherhood is not easy, but it’s seldom this uneasy.
Read the full review of Relic

8 The Assistant

The Assistant
The Assistant

Kitty Green
Deliberately queasy investigation of sexual harassment in the workplace. For every second of screen time, Julia Garner is terrific in a role that often relies entirely on movement and facial expression.
Read the full review of The Assistant

7 The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson go bonkers by the sea. Old-school camera equipment? Academy ratio? Sexy mermaids? Fights with seagulls? J Arthur Ranking? Sea shanties? What’s not to like?
Read the full review of The Lighthouse

6 Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma
Breathtakingly passionate 18th-century drama concerning the romance between a noblewoman and the woman commissioned to paint her portrait. Already a key film of the era.
Read the full review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

5 Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler. Photograph: Julia Cervantes/A24
Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler. Photograph: Julia Cervantes/A24

Josh and Benny Safdie
The busy camera? The hurtling plot? The sheer noise of the thing? The Safdies’ diamond-district thriller made great use of Adam Sandler
Read the full review of Uncut Gems

4 Bacurau

Bacurau
Bacurau

Kleber Mendonça Filho
Bizarre, angry, politically astute pseudo-western whose plot takes in flying saucers, odd bikers and a fascist manhunt. Yet it remains a searing political commentary on neoliberal Brazil.
Read the full review of Bacurau

3 Parasite

Bong Joon Ho
What more need be said? An instant classic that merged social commentary with hell-for-leather farce to thrilling effect. The first “foreign-language” film to win best picture Oscar.
Read the full review of Parasite

2 The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird
The Painted Bird

Václav Marhoul
They were, apparently, fleeing the Venice screening in droves. This disturbing take on Jerzy Kosinski’s semi-factual novel – following a young middle-European refugee during the second World War – is nonetheless a profoundly responsible drama.
Read the full review of The Painted Bird

1 The Personal History of David Copperfield

Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Lionsgate
Dev Patel in The Personal History of David Copperfield. Lionsgate

Armando Iannucci
A miracle of adaptation, Armando Iannucci’s take on Charles Dickens’s favourite child – famously cast with actors of all races – somehow nodded to every corner of the source novel without seeming remotely compromised. It is the best big-screen Dickens translation since David Lean’s classics of the 1940s. Dev Patel is effortlessly charming in the title role. Hugh Laurie standout in support.
Read the full review of The Personal History of David Copperfield

The next 10, in no order

Little Joe, Shirley, Saint Maud, Waves, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, The Mole Agent, Possessor, Rocks, The 40-Year Version, Take Me Somewhere Nice.