What to Watch

Best Films of 2020 in the UK (So Far)

With the year at its halfway point, our writers choose their favourite films so far, from audacious biopics to timely social satires

That's it: 2020 is officially fifty percent done, and what a weird year it's been in almost every way. As far as the movies are concerned, most cinemas closed their doors back in March, leaving studios and distributors to decide which films to delay (No Time to Die, Mulan) and which ones to release across VOD platforms instead (Trolls World Tour setting the precedent in a landmark move).

But let us not forget that we were treated to three good months of cinema before the coronavirus stopped the world in its tracks. With the inevitable, time-based disconnect so many will have sure to have felt during this period of quarantine, it's easy to overlook the fact that this year actually resulted in some absolutely brilliant films.

To compile this list, our writers voted for their ten favourite films of the year (according to UK release dates): the higher up an individual list a film appeared, the more points it was awarded, with the total number of points deciding the final order here. From historical epics to eponymous biopics, these are our choices for the best films of 2020 (so far)…

Words: Tom Barnard, Jack Blackwell, Ella Kemp, Rahul Patel, Adam Solomons

 

20. Dark Waters

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If, like me, you hanker for films about obsessive individuals poring over documents in badly lit rooms to the detriment of their personal lives, Dark Waters is essential viewing: the true story of the DuPont water scandal as a murky drama with all the grip and texture of a 70s political thriller. Todd Haynes (Carol) might not be the first person who springs to mind when it comes to this subject matter, yet fans will notice a similar conspiracy lurking at the heart of his early masterpiece Safe. Mark Ruffalo is excellent as Robert Bilott, the lawyer who won't take no for an answer, in a film that infuriates as much as it entertains. Tom Barnard

 

19. The Personal History of David Copperfield

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Dev Patel’s winning performance as the titular hero has been one of the most underrated of the year so far, crucially modernising a Victorian novel that still has plenty to say about creativity, family, and growing up. Armando Iannucci and screenwriter Simon Blackwell departed from their satirical home turf to pen a brilliantly sincere adaptation of a Dickens classic, resulting in one of the best cinematic takes on the author's work since Oliver! in 1968. With stellar supporting turns from Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton and Peter Capaldi, the curiosity and wonder of Iannucci’s retelling is certain to linger long after the film has ended. Adam Solomons

 

18. Welcome to Chechnya

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In his latest doc on queer political struggles, David France turns his attention to the dangerous work done by Moscow-based activists to save LGBTQ+ people from Chechnya, Russia. There are nail-biting rescue attempts (filmed on hidden body cams) to smuggle endangered queer people out of Chechnya. Deepfakes disguise subjects’ appearances even after they have fled Russia because of the continuous threat they face. And “intercepted” footage of the torture of queer people, though harrowing, is essential if we are to understand the scale of the violence at play. Everything witnessed in Welcome to Chechnya counters delusions some in the West might have that the fight for gay rights is already won. Rahul Patel

 

17. 1917

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Sheer technical wizardry powers Sam Mendes’ explosive World War I drama, where every set piece forces you to ask “how on earth did they do that?!” A simple story of two soldiers delivering a vital message on the front lines is well served by Mendes and Roger Deakins’s choice to have the film play out in a seamless, uninterrupted take. Extraordinary visuals give way to breathless thrills, broken up by cameos from Britain’s most high-profile actor, including Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, whose talismanic performances amplify the uncanny staginess. Even if its writing offers little new to the war genre, 1917 uses its style as substance to truly mesmerising effect. Jack Blackwell

 

16. The King of Staten Island

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Who would've guessed that a Pete Davidson biopic, co-written by and starring Davidson himself, could be one of the more universal, joyful films of the year? This Judd Apatow-directed comedy might be on the self-indulgent side, but it's also so warm and funny, featuring a deep bench of fantastic supporting characters, that it's hard to complain. From Bel Powley to Bill Burr, the cast give superb performances, balancing laughs and emotion with a feather-light touch, ensuring a breezy but sincere tone that makes its luxurious runtime fly past. As feelgood comedies go, you can't do much better than this. Jack Blackwell

 

15. Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

In Disclosure, the history of onscreen transgender representation is told through the experiences of trans people in media, including Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono and MJ Rodriguez. What makes this film stand out is that it’s not a simple cry for more representation. Rather, it is an analytical and personal reflection on the power of transgender portrayals in entertainment – essential in a world where 80% of Americans do not personally know a transgender person. In this vein, it is an important doc for cisgender viewers to learn about the damaging status quo in trans portrayals and understand what changes are necessary. It’s a thorough, intellectual and passionate exploration. Rahul Patel

 

14. 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 mistake using a series of makeshift wooden keys. It's the cinematic equivalent of an Escape Room; 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 – far more deserving of wider audience attention. Tom Barnard

 

13. True History of the Kelly Gang

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Rare is the film that really reckons with what it means to tell a “true story,” but Justin Kurzel’s revisionist outback western does exactly that. It examines the impossibility of capturing honest history in modern art, in amongst punk rock thrills and captivating cinematography. George MacKay has never been better than he is here as the eponymous outlaw, while Nicholas Hoult steals the film as a sadistic cop, giving Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse a run for his money as the year's most valuable supporting actor. Bold and brash in equal measure, Kelly Gang re-establishes Kurzel as one of the most exciting directors working today. Jack Blackwell

 

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. And Then We Danced

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Levan Akin’s queer coming-of-age drama And Then We Danced studies self-expression and desire within the context of Georgia’s anti-LGBTQ+ politics. At a traditional Georgian dance school, Merab’s focus on joining the National Assembly evaporates with the arrival of talented newcomer Irakli. The attraction between the pair builds to an unforgettable peak set perfectly to Robyn’s “Honey.” Aside from the romantic arc, Akin uses Georgian dance as a way to grant Merab an outlet to express himself within a discriminatory society, highlighting the synergy between traditional culture and identity. And the fact that this film exists at all is a defiant example of activism. Rahul Patel

10. 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

 

9. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Just a year after her sophomore film Can You Ever Forgive Me? gained numerous Oscar nominations and saw Melissa McCarthy in a career-best turn, director Marielle Heller was back with another impressive, heartfelt studio comedy-drama. Straightforwardly a “Mr Rogers movie” that serves to celebrate the beloved children’s television personality as a timely advocate for kindness and generosity, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood combines a wonderfully earnest script with Tom Hanks' best performance of the 2010s to great effect. Whatever Heller's up to next, you can count us in. Adam Solomons

 

8. The Assistant

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Subtle and sharp, Kitty Green’s The Assistant is the first and most accomplished deliberate response to the #MeToo movement – without ever needing to mention Harvey Weinstein at all. The film focuses on Jane, an assistant at a New York film company, who suffers a mundane existence as she is constantly undervalued in the office. But this mundanity is key: Green notices the weight of silences, the severity of microaggressions, and lets the tension build without ever making a fuss. Tackling an industry both plagued and defined by whispered betrayals and hushed hypocrisies, The Assistant responds to an ongoing problem with near-silent, white-hot intelligence. Ella Kemp

 

7. 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

 

6. 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

 

5. Da 5 Bloods

Where to watch it: Netflix

No one captures indignation quite like Spike Lee, whose most recent film, a meditative Vietnam War drama about four black veterans who return to the battlefield to find their commander’s body – and some hidden treasure – was inadvertently and tragically well-timed. A director of unique ambition and confidence, Lee’s latest is a genre-bending epic that’s well aware of Hollywood’s less-than-perfect representation of a generation-defining war. Da 5 Bloods would be very different in the hands of Oliver Stone, who was initially attached to direct, yet Lee’s foray into this territory feels like nothing less than a pro at the top of his game. And on the subject, Delroy Lindo’s performance as troubled, Trump supporter veteran Paul is surely the best of the year so far. Adam Solomons

 

4. 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 

 

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

What is there to be said that hasn’t already? Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is, as the world has declared and proved, a stone-cold masterpiece. It is a real thrill when experience matches, and even trumps, expectation – such is Bong’s wickedly brilliant mind. The story of one low-earning family slowly infiltrating the lives of a wealthy one takes dark turns, relishes ink-black humour and manages to push and pull your attention in a million different ways. It’s shocking, entertaining, devastating, bold and endlessly brilliant. And how wonderful it is to say – again – that it’s officially our Best Picture. Long live Director Bong. Ella Kemp

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Gemma Arterton is brilliant as a writer wrestling with her own past in an otherwise underwhelming and all too familiar WWII drama