What to Watch

25 Best Films of 2020 in the UK

As the strangest of cinematic years draws to a close, our writers pick their favourite films, from unconventional biopics to essential docs

In a terrible year where the medium of moviemaking has been threatened, its existence thrown unexpectedly into contention by the closure of cinemas, it's amazing to consider just how many beautiful, progressive, and unforgettable pictures have still come our way – both before and during the pandemic. Films that have broken down cultural borders, inspired change and activism, and – as the lines between traditional cinema and television continue to blur – asked us to rethink what constitutes a “film” in the first place.

To compile this list of 2020's best, our regular contributors voted for their ten favourite films of the year (according to UK release dates): the higher up an individual's list a film appeared, the more points it was worth, with the total number of points deciding the final order here. Spanning a wide selection, from essential documentaries to bold biopics, these are WeLoveCinema's picks for the best films of 2020…

Contributors: Tom Barnard, Jack Blackwell, Ben Flanagan, Steph Green, Jack King, Ella Kemp, Emily Maskell, Iana Murray, Rahul Patel, Lilia Pavin-Franks, Adam Solomons, Millicent Thomas

 

25. Love Child

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This remarkable documentary from Danish directors Eva Mulvad and Lea Glob is a beautiful and heart-wrenching chronicle of lives reduced to a never-ending limbo. Love Child tells story of Sahand and Leila, who flee Iran with their young son Mani in the wake of a adulterous relationship that could result in a death sentence in their home country. In Istanbul, they wait restlessly for the UN to recognise their refugee status – though their situation is continually derailed by bureaucratic systems that refuse to acknowledge the trio as a family unit. Shot, amazingly, over a period of six years, Love Child stands as one of the great modern films about the refugee crisis – frequently sad but never miserablist, it's a life-affirming testament to the strength of the human spirit, as essential as it is humbling. Tom Barnard

 

24. Escape from Pretoria

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The true story of the 1979 Pretoria prison escape is so unbelievable you’ll wonder why it wasn’t made into a film sooner. Writer-director Francis Annan, making his feature debut, crafts a meticulous thriller built from the most agonising sets-pieces as Daniel Radcliffe’s bearded prisoner Tim Jenkin mounts a daring escape using a series of makeshift wooden keys. Inventively filmed, with great supporting turns from Daniel Webber and Ian Hart, it unravels as a relentlessly gripping and unashamed B-movie gem that sustains a genuine tension for all its runtime – a film that's far more deserving of wider audience attention. It's the cinematic equivalent of an Escape Room. Tom Barnard

 

23. Onward

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In Pixar’s Onward, director Dan Scanlon draws intimately from his own childhood to tell a thrilling tale of two elf brothers – Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) – who stumble upon a magic spell that gives them the chance to spend a single day with their deceased father (unfortunately it goes wrong, leaving them with just his legs and prompting a heroic fetch quest to restore his top half). It’s as charming as any Pixar feature to date and a heartfelt love letter to the director’s brother, who acted as a paternal figure while he was growing up. A wholesome adventure that's certain to leave you in puddles of tears, Onward also delivers a surprise ending you won't see coming, but is all the more magical for the way it subverts your expectations. Millicent Thomas

 

22. Shirley

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Swirlingly erotic and discombobulating all at once, Josephine Decker’s “biomythography” of Shirley Jackson felt like the cinematic equivalent of a lucid dream, reality teasingly out of reach. Shirley doesn’t care about facts, which makes it inextricably literary; even the ochre-tinged cinematography felt reminiscent of the yellowing pages in a novel, while playing fast and loose with the true details frees the film from its shackles. Elisabeth Moss’ performance is extraordinarily multi-layered, where spite and sexual frisson is dealt in equal measure. It is oddly liberating to see a woman on screen who is – at once – rude, respected, messy, shrewd, and lustful. Decker’s playful, roving use of form and genre blows the cobwebs off of the tired biopic genre, inviting the audience to surrender to the intoxication of doubt. Steph Green

 

21. Kajillionaire

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Miranda July’s mind is a curious, unknowable thing. The filmmaker, poet, dancer, mother, comedian and artist turns her talents to the big screen once more with Kajillionaire, a story of dysfunctional families and love that comes from unexpected places. Evan Rachel Wood is Old Dolio, the daughter of two con artists unlearning functional relationships and slowly coming to terms with the idea of happiness and tenderness. The film glows with the belief that you can find joy in strange, imperfect things, and boasts July’s incomparable wit and wisdom. Gina Rodriguez is the film’s brightest light as Melanie, a stranger who disrupts this family, while Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger prove their comedic chops are unparalleled as Dolio’s parents. Listen out for Emile Mosseri’s swooning, heartbreaking score – Kajillionaire is a rare film that almost has too much to fall in love with. Ella Kemp

 

20. Collective

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Alexander Nanau’s jaw-dropping documentary about the Romanian healthcare scandal that led to sixty-four deaths is as gripping as the best conspiracy thriller. In 2015, a fire at the titular nightclub – a result of botched fire exit permits – gave rise to a huge scandal, but the worst was yet to come, the incident bringing to light the shady goings-on throughout Bucharest's hospitals. What begins as a testament to the power of investigative journalism, as reporters at Romanian newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor uncover an endless web of deceit, soon widens its scope to paint a portrait of a rotten society drowning in complicity. Collective is a film about the decay of a country's moral backbone, where every facade of modern life has been poisoned by the hangover of a terrible regime. Everyone should see it (and comparisons to The Wire are apt). Tom Barnard

 

19. Birds of Prey

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature had the daunting task of doing justice to Harley Quinn’s first solo outing, while also introducing a whole new host of characters to big-screen Gotham. On these results, we needn't have worried. Following a break-up with the Joker, Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds a target on her back and a ruthless slew of villains on her tail. Thankfully, so do a few more Gotham dames, leading to 2020's most iconic superhero team-up involving roller skates, carnival fights, a dance number, a pet hyena, and Ewan McGregor in a velvet suit. Throw in an electric female-led soundtrack, a narrative that plays entirely by Harley's rules, and awesome fight choreography from the team behind John Wick, and Birds of Prey basically proved impossible not to enjoy. Millicent Thomas

 

18. About Endlessness

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In About Endlessness, Roy Andersson delivers, as he always does, a selection of bleakly comic tableaus built from inside his Studio 24 production house in Stockholm. His swan song begins and ends with a line of birds flying beyond the edge of existence, but this is no somber affair. A woman’s wait for her lover at a desolate train station is heartbreaking. An encounter of three girls pausing outside a restaurant to dance to rock ‘n’ roll is elegiac. Recurring scenes of a priest losing his faith have the clip of an existentialist novel. All the while a woman’s voiceover refrains, “I saw.” About Endlessness’ central image of a couple’s embrace as they float over a war-torn Cologne reaches through Tarkovsky to beyond the birth of the cinema, the renaissance, and time itself. The result was 2020’s ultimate big-screen experience: a funny, epic dose of delirium with a heart that’s full to burst. Ben Flanagan

 

17. Ema

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Pablo Larrain’s dizzying dance drama sees the filmmaker return to Chile to tell a story of passion, fire and longing – with electric results. He casts newcomer Mariana Di Girolamo (immediately a revelation) as the eponymous Ema, a dancer wrestling with the guilt and confusion of an adoption gone wrong with her partner Gaston, a choreographer (Gael Garcia Bernal on fantastic form). From the seductive moments of dialogue between the pair and those who get drawn into their orbit, to the wordless physical sequences – scored by electronic DJ Nicolas Jaar with metronomic intensity and hypnotic melodies – in which bodies move with both commanding force and liquid-smooth dexterity: it’s a feast for the senses, a picture of chaos and desire with an electric shock coursing through every frame. Ella Kemp

 

16. Lovers Rock

Where to watch it: BBC iPlayer

Though it’s the euphoric sense of intimacy and interaction which lingers longest after a viewing of Lovers Rock, the second entry to Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series is more than just good vibes alone. Named after the easy-listening sub-genre of reggae heard in (and outside) the homes of London’s Afro-Caribbean communities throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Lovers Rock follows Martha Trenton (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn Cooper (Micheal Ward) as they set out on a night of flirting, dancing, and fun. How hard can it be? Their connection is elusive but magnetic: even as skinhead thugs seek to disturb the peace of the Notting Hill house where these two – and, seemingly, most of London – party away, McQueen makes the location feel like the centre of the universe. Adam Solomons

 

15. Bad Education

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The premise of Corey Finley's Bad Education does little to excite on paper, but don’t let this deceive you: in short, a conspiracy of embezzlement worth millions of dollars is unearthed in a US school district, with the district’s beloved superintendent, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), at the helm. Tassone’s story is a tragedy through-and-through – a story of a man obsessed with the need to be respectable, and to be admired, in a world where respectability and admiration are flanked by dollar signs. It is about the corrupting power of expectation, and how one can be led to fulfil unrealistic promise by any means necessary. Some might read him as a man ravaged by a sort of narcissistic myopia, caught in the trap of what he believes he should be, as opposed to what he should be. But he is more a product of those who worship at the church of Frank Tassone than he is of a corrupted sense-of-self. As goes the salient point articulated near the film’s climax: how is he supposed to be what the people want him to be on a teacher’s salary? This is the greatest character study of the year, elevated by a career-best performance from Jackman. Jack King

 

14. American Utopia

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In 1984, David Byrne asked us to stop making sense in Jonathan Demme’s revolutionary Talking Heads concert movie. In 2020, through Spike Lee’s lens, the musician is trying to find a crumb of sense in it all. The filmed version of Byrne’s Broadway smash-hit celebrates the frontman’s extensive back catalogue – both as the poster figure of Talking Heads and as a soloist – and brings it to life with electric, intoxicating results. Byrne and his 11-man band bop and shimmy across the stage, effortlessly slick and fizzing with energy, while providing thoughtful, hopeful commentary at a time when the world is gasping for it. How did we get here? Nobody knows – but watching Byrne and company sing and dance their way through it feels like the perfect way to weather the storm. Ella Kemp

 

13. A Hidden Life

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Having divided opinion for the past decade with his freewheeling mediations on modern relationships about very sad beautiful people, Terrence Malick’s three-hour historical drama – based on the life of contentious objector Franz Jägerstätter – signalled both a return to the past and a return to form. Malick's trademark floating cinematography and existential rhetoric might power the narrative, but its central fight against fascism imbues A Hidden Life with a tantalising moral dilemma that makes it entirely gripping. Throw in a gorgeous score from Thomas Newman, and some of 2020's lushest cinematography, and the result is Malick’s best film in years – thirty minutes too long, but undeniably gorgeous and affecting. Tom Barnard

 

12. Richard Jewell

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Clint Eastwood's dramatisation of the events that made an unlikely hero (and later a suspect) of a well-meaning Atlanta security guard is a bold testament to its eponymous lead – but also to the versatile talents of star Paul Walter Hauser, who gives one of the year's most sympathetic and layered turns. Eastwood's gripping, affecting biopic, based on the true story of the foiled terrorist bombing at the 1996 Atlantic Olympics and its bumbling aftermath, is his best and tightest film in years. Deeply suspicious of government institutions, Richard Jewell's exploration of the toxic media – predating but anticipating “cancel culture” – gives it a stinging modern relevancy. At its centre, Hauser finds the perfect note for a flawed but compassionate individual who was never meant for the limelight. Tom Barnard

 

11. Matthias & Maxime

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Depending on who you’re asking, Xavier Dolan went into a bit of a slump following the critical failures of It’s Only the End of the World and his English language debut The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Thankfully, the Quebecois filmmaker made a triumphant return to form – and his grounded roots – with Matthias & Maxime, a tale of unspoken desire between two best friends whose relationship is irrevocably changed by a kiss they are forced to share for a student short film. Matthias & Maxime is also Dolan’s most mature work to date, suggesting this filmmaking wunderkind is now all grown up. Plus, no other film holds the distinct honour of a Harris Dickinson dab. Iana Murray

10. Rocks

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In bringing together a group of unknown youngsters for her film Rocks, director Sarah Gavron struck gold, giving us one of the most authentic depictions of British teenagedom and female friendship in years. Bukky Bakray shines as the eponymous character – a young girl unexpectedly left to care for her younger brother and navigate the minefield of adolescence when her mother disappears. This is a film with so much heart, expertly handling the balance between drama and humour with a lived-in sincerity. Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson’s screenplay accurately captures the idiosyncrasies of teenage girl vernacular, injecting realism into every moment and naturally encouraging the sparkling dynamic of the film’s young cast. Rocks was perhaps one of 2020’s quieter masterpieces, but has quickly come to feel like an essential addition to the coming-of-age genre. Lilia Pavin-Franks

 

9. I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Where to watch it: Netflix

Snow flurries across the frame, obscuring a narrative already sodden with confounding dialogue and uncanny visuals. A dog shakes. A car journey seems to go on forever. Little things about I’m Thinking Of Ending Things continue to astonish: Jessie Buckley’s subtle lean into vocal fry as she mimics Pauline Kael, David Thewlis’ unnervingly lopsided grimace, the endless Easter eggs. But it's an emotionally involving work, too, despite keeping us at arm's length – no easy feat. It was quietly reassuring that a service like Netflix banked on an oddity requiring patience, rigour, and no phone-scrolling. The almost imperceptible subtleties in the film makes rewatching it essential, with Kaufman’s visual gaslighting calling for endless interpretation and discovery. How glorious that, in a time where movies increasingly feel like endless puff piece biopics or awards bait, seemingly out of nowhere, we get a treat like this – one to savour slowly. Steph Green

 

8. Mangrove

Where to watch it: BBC iPlayer

It’s a testament to the awfulness of online discourse that the conversation around Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, an anthology series of five thematically connected films on Black British history, has focused on the series’ format. That one might consider it to be television, or a series of films, or one big film altogether, is really immaterial, given the magnitude of quality. At the series’ apex resides Mangrove – part art drama, part courtroom procedural, the film chronicles the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of Black British activists accused of inciting a riot for protesting police violence against the patrons and ownership of Notting Hill’s Mangrove restaurant. Elevated by exceptional performances from Shaun Parkes and Malachi Kirby, it's a profound rallying cry, where community resistance is empowered as praxis. The film trades in little thematic subtlety, but this is where Mangrove derives much of its power: it forces us to confront the political injustices of the past, exhuming a history so rarely considered. Jack King

 

7. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If Eliza Hittman wasn’t already on your radar as one of the most sensitive, compelling filmmakers working today, let her third feature convert you. Never Rarely Sometimes Always frames one teenage girl’s journey to get an abortion as a cinematic odyssey: deeply felt, with piercing details and devastating subtle performances. Sidney Flanigan plays the protagonist, Autumn, with discrete power. Hittman knows that stifled emotion – fear, helplessness, frustration – speaks just as loud as any line of dialogue. And so she builds something quietly heartbreaking. A portrait of a girl just like any other, one who is ignored and shuffled to the back of the queue – but who, here, is the most important thing in the world. Ella Kemp

 

6. And Then We Danced

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Early on in And Then We Danced, it is made clear that Merab’s (Levan Gelbakhiani) queerness is not welcome on the Georgian dance floor. While the film explores the strict traditions of Georgian culture, filmmaker Levan Akin also crafts an empowering love letter, infused with hope, to the young people of the country. Beneath a mesmerising golden glow, two men dance together in the silence of the night and an inextinguishable spark ignites queer desire and reclamation. Both politically poignant and masterfully primed, And Then We Danced proves the indispensability of independent cinema. Not only does Akin yield a charming story of self-acceptance and present the transfixing talent of Gelbakhiani, but he has also prompted necessary discussions of LGBTQ+ rights and freedom in Georgia. Emily Maskell

 

5. The Lighthouse

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Robert Eggers cemented himself as a pivotal voice in indie horror with the slow and beguiling The Witch – but no one could predict the sweaty, silly insanity of The Lighthouse. A claustrophobic portrait of two men on the verge, the black-and-white stylised horror sees Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe slowly losing their minds on a secluded island as they tend to the titular lighthouse. Terrifying one second and ridiculous the next, the film constantly walks a risky tonal tightrope and somehow never falls off. There’s much to be read into about fragile masculinity, the mythology and fear of women, the danger of seagulls, and more. But even read purely on a surface level, you’ll be pained to find a more loudly entertaining time than this. Ella Kemp 

 

4. Babyteeth

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

A coming-of-age film about a terminally ill teenage girl comes loaded with expectations, but Babyteeth gleefully subverts the cancer weepy to give the genre a much-needed shot in the arm. It’s the story of Milla (Eliza Scanlen) and Moses (Toby Wallace) and their inability to resist each other, despite the disapproval of Milla’s parents and their relationship’s unavoidable expiry date. Even with that inevitable outcome, Shannon Murphy’s exuberant debut feature is full of acerbic humour and surprising wisdom. And instead of wallowing in antiseptic hospital rooms, Murphy retains her focus on Milla’s lust for life and love, no matter the consequences. It’s a complete joy to witness – just be ready to have your heart destroyed by the end. Iana Murray

 

3. Uncut Gems

Where to watch it: Netflix

Simply put, one of the most stressful films ever made. The Safdie Brothers have been good for a while, but Uncut Gems catapults them into a whole new league, using the cityscape of New York as a weapon to keep their audience high-strung and sweaty-palmed for the length of its runtime. Adam Sandler reminds us exactly how brilliant he can be with the right material as the chaotic diamond dealer around whom the maelstrom of Uncut Gems rages. It’s agonising, it’s hilarious, and it’s often visionary, transporting you to the most frantic corners of New York via Ethiopian mines and the quantum realm. A dizzying masterpiece. Jack Blackwell

 

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Celine Sciamma has been a staple of the film festival crowd for well over a decade, but it was her full-throated masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire that catapulted the French filmmaker to mainstream prominence as one of the most exciting directors working today. Set on a French island in the 19th century, the film follows the intense romantic relationship between an aristocrat and the artist whose mission it is to capture her beauty in a portrait. Featuring some truly staggering cinematography and a showstopping performance from frequent Sciamma collaborator Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire already feels like a modern classic. Adam Solomons

 

1. Parasite

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In the nineteen months since clinching the Palme d’Or, the acclaim for Parasite is yet to cease. In his ridiculous tale of a low-income household infiltrating a privileged one, Bong Joon-ho bends a multitude of genres to his will, masterfully concocting a cheeky and subversive narrative packed with twists and turns. The crackling screenplay is delivered via slick, well-choreographed direction and emotive performances, rightfully making stars of all involved: cast, crew, and – on the awards circuit itself – even Bong’s translator Sharon Choi. The quartet of statuettes this South Korean thriller picked up at the Oscars is a fitting legacy – few recent films, if any, have inspired such a broad consensus on its sheer awesomeness. The word “masterpiece” is often overused – in this case it's mandatory. Rahul Patel

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