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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.