The annual attempt to take the temperature of the cinematic year at the halfway point operates under new rules this season. Do we need to labour the medical analogy? If you are reading this you will know cinemas have been shut for over half the period under review and that the industry has moved online or shifted its attention to late 2020 or 2021.
Traditional exhibition habits mean, however, that the list contains much that would have been there if no virus had hit. The later arrivals from awards season still opened in the first three months of the year. Indeed, our top three films – each of which had a theatrical release – all premiered at Cannes in 2019. They will be in domestic “best of 2020” list over a year and a half after arriving on La Croisette (which, by that stage, will feel like a millennium away).
Four of our entries do, however, break the old rules by making a first public appearance online. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has said that such pictures will be eligible for Oscars. So who are we to argue?) We can’t say for certain if all four would have made it into cinemas, but the list in an alternative lockdown-free universe would not be radically different.
The results, nonetheless, tell a strange tale. Some titles arrived as pandemic diversion. One or two crossed both worlds and received an early streaming release after opening theatrically just before the virus arrived.
Everything has changed. Who can tell if it will ever change back again?
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Andre Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel concerning a gay man serving in the South African Defence forces is adapted into a harrowing film that reveals hitherto underexplored tensions in the apartheid regime. As incisive as it is bleak.
Read the full review of Moffie
9 The Personal History of David Copperfield
Directed by Armando Iannucci
A kind of miracle. Iannucci adapts Dickens’s favourite of his own novels – all 900 pages – into a two-hour film that remains faithful to the text (if you care about such things). The picture is certainly hurried, but that is a joke in itself. The racially blind casting works like a dream.
Read the full review of The Personal History of David Copperfield
8 The Invisible Man
Directed by Leigh Wannell
After hugely expensive, bloated disasters such as The Wolfman and The Mummy, Universal sees sense and reimagines another of their classic horror films as an economic, brilliantly tense shocker that owes as much to Gaslight as HG Wells’s source novel. Elisabeth Moss is superb as the harried protagonist.
Read the full review of The Invisible Man
7 Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Never
Directed by Eliza Hittman
Hittman establishes herself as one of the era’s great poetic realists with this study of a young woman travelling to New York City for an abortion. The performances are strong. The research is sound. But it’s the insidious unearthing of hidden sadness that sets the film apart.
Read the full review of Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Never
6 The Vast of Night
Directed by Andrew Patterson
The streaming cult of lockdown? Nodding to The Twilight Zone, Patterson’s singular science-fiction drama concerns two young pals investigating a mysterious radio signal in 1950s America. Fun with vintage iconography. Agreeable piling on of enigma. It’s a wonder to find something simultaneously so allusive and so original.
Read the full review of The Vast of Night
5 Vitalina Varela
Directed by Pedro Costa
One of our era’s most rigorous film-makers applies his gloomy (literally and figuratively) aesthetic to the story of a middle-aged Cape Verdean woman arriving in Lisbon some days after her husband’s funeral. Not everyone connects with Costa’s inky seriousness, but the emotional commitment is overwhelming.
Read the full review of Vitalina Varela
4 Uncut Gems
Directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie
It takes great discipline to deliver indiscipline on this scale. Adam Sandler plays a panicked jeweller in a film that celebrates the anarchic energies of New York’s diamond district. The colours are saturated. The camera is restless. But it’s the relentless noise you notice most. The right sort of exhausting experience.
Read the full review of Uncut Gems
3 Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma
The director of Girlhood tells the story of two young women –a painter and her subject – becoming close in late 18th-century Brittany. The relationship is teased out through delicate escalation that deals as much in sublimated hints as open passion. Extraordinary imagery. Admirable restraint.
Read the full review of Portrait of a Lady on Fire
2 The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers
If you thought Eggers’s The Witch was a trip then you may need a sedative before embarking on the same director’s militantly weird treatment of duelling lunacies in a remote lighthouse. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe trade maritime badinage as the evil spirits gather without. A monochrome phantasmagoria.
Read the full review of The Lighthouse
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
Excuse us for skewing towards the obvious, but Parasite really is one of the era’s cinematic marvels. A furiously angry film about social inequality that never lessens the tension or backs down on the accumulating twists. Despite those narrative chicanes, the surprises seem, as in all the best farce, pre-ordained. Where else could we be headed here? It feels like an aeon ago that Parasite became the first film not in the English language to win best picture at the Oscars. Bong’s film also managed (just) to become the highest-grossing “foreign language” film ever in the combined UK-Ireland territory before the shutters came down.
Read the full review of Parasite
The next 10: Bacurau, The Assistant, Ema, The Truth, Honeyland, System Crasher, Little Joe, Vivarium, Colour Out of Space, The Hunt