Film in 2020 was, as usual, dominated by heroes and villains – but this year they were off-screen as much as on it. Coronavirus took the title of biggest baddie, closely followed by James Bond (who assassinated cinema, if you hadn’t heard). Christopher Nolan was the saviour of movies, until he wasn’t – and re-emerging like a fan-service Star Wars cameo were drive-in theatres, last seen in this franchise sometime around 1978. Perhaps the year’s only true heroes were the cinema workers – ushers, cleaners and popcorn sellers who adapted to industry-crushing social distancing rules as best they could. And even though some of the biggest chains closed their doors, there were loads of amazing films released over the 12 months, many of them hosted by streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and horror mecca Shudder.
From classic K-horror to life-affirming teen dramas and bold, brilliant blockbusters to career-spanning band documentaries, there was something for everyone. Don’t listen to those who tell you cinema is finished – the list below proves it’s only just getting started.
Alex Flood, Film and TV editor
Words: Jordan Bassett, Paul Bradshaw, Martyn Conterio, Leonie Cooper, Rhian Daly, El Hunt, Linda Marric, Ella Kemp, Nick Levine, Kevin EG Perry, Nick Reilly, Andrew Trendell, Amon Warmann, Beth Webb
20. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Director: Jason Woliner
At a time when the world desperately needed a hero, we got Borat. The return of Sacha Baron Cohen‘s hapless Kazakh journalist may have been one of the year’s most unexpected surprises, but it went far in proving that the comic creation has lost none of his bite. Ironically, it was Borat’s daughter, in a career-making turn from Maria Bakalova, that proved to be the film’s greatest strength. It’s testament to her command of the character that she persuaded Donald Trump’s hapless attorney Rudy Giuliani to nearly drop his trousers, creating one of 2020’s biggest news stories – and making himself look like an even bigger idiot than usual. With this headline moment – and the film’s willingness to tackle QAnon conspiracy nutjobs, racism and the rise of the far-right – Cohen showed that Borat remains a vital satirical voice. To quote the man himself, it was very niiice.
Best moment: You can’t look past the aforementioned sting interview, when Rudy Giuliani was caught, quite literally, with his pants down. NR
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19. Beastie Boys Story
Director: Spike Jonze
The Beastie Boys always knew how to put on an unforgettable live show, so it’s fitting that this look back at their illustrious career takes the form of a stage performance filmed live at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. Director Spike Jonze keeps things simple so that Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond can tell their story, and in doing so pay tribute to their late friend Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, who died tragically after a three-year battle with cancer in 2012. Hanging with Ad-Rock and Mike D as they swap rock’n’roll tales is just as much fun as you’d expect, and the film is packed full of goosebump moments like the time they heard MCA jamming the ‘Sabotage’ bassline for the very first time. Essential viewing for hip-hop historians and casual Beasties fans alike.
Best moment: Amid all the laughter and hijinks, the most emotional moment of the film comes towards the end when Ad-Rock tearfully recalls the Beasties’ headline show at Bonnaroo in 2009. Unbeknown to him at the time, it would be their final performance as a trio. KP
18. The Vast Of Night
Director: Andrew Patterson
Sci-fi, perhaps more than any other genre, is guilty of borrowing from its past. Stranger Things owes a debt to ‘80s Spielberg, Ad Astra looked like an arthouse Gravity, the new season of Westworld was heavily influenced by Blade Runner – but these historical nods don’t necessarily signify laziness or a lack of ideas. The Vast Of Night, a gripping, inventive ode to older science fiction, is proof of that. It follows a charismatic 1950s radio DJ called Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his young switchboard operator pal Fay (Sierra McCormick), who discover a strange audio frequency broadcasting on the air waves and are forced to investigate a supernatural presence that may have profound consequences for the future of their small town. Referencing everything from The Twilight Zone to Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, this indie curio won’t win any awards for originality – but we recommend you make it your next close encounter all the same.
Best moment: The long, 1917-style single take which tracks Everett and Fay’s journey across the suburbs is a creepy, claustrophobic treat. AF
17. The Invisible Man
Director: Leigh Whannell
Leigh Whannell’s update of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man makes a 123-year-old novel feel fresh again in smart and haunting fashion. Starring Elizabeth Moss as a woman who frees herself from an abusive relationship only to correctly suspect she’s being haunted by her unseeable ex, the sense of dread is palpable even when it’s not warranted. Much of that is due to Moss’ awards-worthy central performance, which more than compensates for the fact that she has no other actor to bounce off in the majority of her scenes. That leads to a number of cleverly won scares, including but not limited to a terrifying sequence which we’ll detail below. If you know, you know.
Best moment: A restaurant encounter takes a bloody turn for the worse in 2020’s most shocking movie scene. AW
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Director: Shannon Murphy
Blending elements of romance, coming-of-age drama and tragedy, Shannon Murphy’s stunning debut feature follows 15-year-old Milla (Eliza Scanlen) as she finds her first love and grapples with a terminal illness. The film maintains an offbeat sense of humour and generosity of spirit towards its main characters: Milla’s parents are played to perfection by Essie Davis and Ben Mendelsohn, while Toby Wallace portrays Moses, the object of Milla’s affection, with magnetic charisma. Babyteeth is wise on the importance of feeling deeply: running headfirst towards your first kiss, dancing until exhaustion, experiencing pain and pleasure and fear all in one go, because it’ll always be better than experiencing nothing at all. It bottles a million feelings at once – and as a result feels fresh and exciting.
Best moment: At a house party, Milla dances her fears away to the electro-funk stylings of ‘Bizness’ by Tune-Yards. EK
Like this? Try this: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, The Edge Of Seventeen
15. Idiot Prayer: Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace
Director: Nick Cave
In any other year, a night out at Alexandra Palace is an evening made of rubbing up against 10,000 strangers while the all-pervasive smell of chips and pints wafts playfully under your nose. Bliss, right? But in 2020, that wasn’t to be. Rather than staying glumly shuttered, though, the iconic north London venue opened its doors to one special guest, Nick Cave minus his Bad Seeds, for a specially streamed summer show. Despite buffering issues, the reviews were unanimous. Cave’s solo show – which saw him wordlessly sitting at an extremely expensive grand piano and playing a mournful, majestic greatest hits set – was one of the gothic gent’s finest ever hours. The idea to release the gig as a proper film so fans could watch it again and again was evidently the plan all along, but that makes Idiot Prayer no less special.
Best moment: Nick Cave swaggering through a starkly empty Ally Pally as the film opens. To see him cut a purposeful dash striding in that glorious Gucci suit is enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. LC
14. On The Rocks
Director: Sofia Coppola
When it was announced that Sofia Coppola would be reuniting with Bill Murray for the first time since 2003’s Lost in Translation, hype was high and some were expecting a spiritual sequel. On The Rocks sees Rashida Jones as Laura, an author struggling to balance domesticity with creativity – and the suspicion that her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is having an affair. Cue debonaire dad Felix (Murray), whose history of infidelity does little to quell her worst fears. Still, they motor off on a mission of fast cars and cocktails to find out if her man is actually playing away. Later, Felix’s old-school lothario approach to the modern world doesn’t escape scrutiny, as his daughter teaches him a thing or two about respecting women. Eventually, love conquers all and family ties are strengthened as the duo rekindle their relationship among the bright lights of NYC.
Best moment: When Felix charms the cops out of writing him a speeding ticket, and into giving his car a push. AT
Like this? Try this: Lost In Translation, A Very Murray Christmas
13. Queen & Slim
Director: Melina Matsoukas
The first feature film from award-winning music video director Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé‘s ‘Formation’) is a poignant and timely crime drama. Written by Lena Waithe (The Chi, Master of None), it follows a seemingly mismatched Black American couple (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith) who go on the run after he pulls the trigger on a racist white cop. Waithe’s script adds a clever contemporary edge to a story rooted in decades of racial oppression: when footage of the shooting is posted to social media, the duo are embraced as folk heroes by members of the Black community who are tired of police persecution. Aided by powerful performances from her talented leads, Matsoukas steers Queen & Slim towards a stunning finale that feels even more gut-wrenching as the Black Lives Matter movement gathers momentum.
Best moment: It’s hard to beat that finale, which is both devastatingly emotional and dazzlingly cinematic. NL
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12. The Trial Of The Chicago 7
Director: Aaron Sorkin
Aaron Sorkin has made a career out of writing snappy dialogue, shouty arguments and flamboyant speeches, but it’s taken him since 1992’s A Few Good Men to have another crack at a legal drama. The Trial Of The Chicago 7 turns the real-life show trial of a group of 1960s protestors into a starry ensemble piece that marches to the same urgent beat as this year’s biggest social movements. Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Michael Keaton and Joseph Gordon-Levitt fight for the spotlight, but it’s Sorkin’s script that hogs it – with a dozen big payoffs that present history in a gripping new format. After a summer of hate that saw our feeds overflowing with police brutality and racial violence, Sorkin’s film was a reminder of just how little has changed.
Best moment: Abdul-Mateen’s Bobby Seal, gagged and chained in the dock, is a terrifying recreation of one of the American justice system’s most shameful moments. PB
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11. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire
Director: Céline Sciamma
When young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is sent to a spooky villa in west France to capture the likeness of haughty aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) in secret, she ends up falling in love with her painterly subject. At the heart of Portrait of a Lady on Fire – and the women’s potent connection – there’s an urgent, agitated buzz. Touches are fleeting and paint-smeared as a frantic score flutters in the background. Constantly, we’re reminded that time is slipping away from them, and fast. Soon Héloïse will be married off to a wealthy stranger in Italy, because, well: welcome to the stinking patriarchy, lads. Instead of flipping the male gaze on its head – the idea that women constantly “watch themselves being looked at” by men – Sciamma explores something else: the way that women look at each other when they’re fuelled by desire. And, like a painting, every single frame is immaculate.
Best moment: The much-memed kiss where Héloïse and Marianne pull down their face-coverings for a bit of beachside passion. A scene that’ll speak to anyone who’s tried to neck on the DLR in a facemask. EH
Like this? Try this: Girlhood, Carol
10. Saint Maud
Director: Rose Glass
This electrifying debut feature from Rose Glass follows Maud, a pious nurse who becomes obsessed with saving the soul of her dying patient. Part sleek gothic-horror, part gripping psycho-thriller, the film brilliantly explores ideas surrounding loneliness and societal alienation. Boosted by two arresting turns from rising star Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, Saint Maud has at its centre a story about a young woman slowly descending into madness. It presents her as someone completely out of step with the world around her, and just like a modern-day Joan of Arc, we see her pay the price for it. Although there are doubts over what Maud thinks she’s seeing versus what is really happening, there’s also a sense that it may not all be imagined. It is this ambiguity which makes the film so much more than just another popcorn fright fest.
Best moment: At a party organised for the dying Amanda’s birthday, Maud tells her patient some home truths in a room full of guests. The resulting argument and shocking final act is highly relatable. LM
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9. Birds Of Prey
Director: Cathy Yan
Birds Of Prey could have been DC’s cynical cash-grab at the feminist market, but instead, this brutal, boisterous comic book movie crafted messages of female empowerment with subtlety and sincerity. Fresh from a break up with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) sets out on a journey to find her own independence – but it’s hard to become your own person when half of Gotham is out to kill you. With baddie Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) among those finding twisted hope in the split, Harley’s path entangles with a crew of unlikely teammates on a mission to save her skin and put the men in their place. It’s a no-holds-barred thrill stuffed with witty jokes and graphically violent brawls, brilliantly not shying away from letting its women fight as dirty and deranged as their male counterparts. How’s that for equal opportunities?
Best moment: The ultraviolent finale, when our outlandish collection of misfits team up to take down Roman Sionis and his goons. RD
Director: Rob Savage
When Taylor Swift made the lockdown album, ‘folklore’, she offered up a collection of cosy, comforting songs drenched in nostalgia; delicious musical Ovaltine amid a scary year. When director Rob Savage made the lockdown movie, he was rather less forgiving. The film emerged from a two-word WhatsApp pitch: ‘Zoom séance’; it’s told entirely through the prism of a video call. Bored of quizzes, some pals hire a medium to spice up their weekly catch-up. But when one participant takes the piss out of proceedings, she riles a demon (they don’t have much of a sense of humour, apparently), unleashing more havoc than a dodgy WiFi connection. For all the enjoyable hokiness of the premise, Host was terrifying because it looked so familiar and, more importantly, exploited the sense of isolation we’ve all been experiencing this year. Just when you thought it was safe to go back on the conference call…
Best moment: Spoiler alert! When one terrified Zoomer heads up into the loft, a pair of feet – apparently from a hanged body – swing chillingly across the screen. Or did they? They disappear in a flash, unlike the terror that Host will induce. JB
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Director: Sarah Gavron
One of the finest British teen films in recent memory, Rocks broke new ground with its open and joyful – yet never romanticised – portrayal of east London. A tight-knit ensemble of local secondary school girls were streetcast and then got to workshop their story with the filmmakers – an approach that adds fresh authenticity to the movie. “[We wanted to] create a world where people can become those new storytellers,” director Sarah Gavron told NME in September. “The girls were expressing themselves in their own words and owning those moments.” As Gavron explained, central to the film’s success was the friendship between Shola, aka Rocks (Bukky Bakray), and Sumaya (Kosar Ali), whose fierce loyalty and playfulness were a tonic for an especially difficult year.
Best moment: Without giving too much away, a spontaneous trip out of London for the girls cuts to the very core of what makes Rocks an enduring and unique coming-of-age movie. BW
Director: Thomas Kail
In recent pop culture, not much has been able to sustain hype like hip-hop musical Hamilton. And thanks to its Disney+ debut as a live performance movie earlier this year, a whole new audience was able to see what the fuss was about. As you’d expect, the phenomenon reached new heights, breaking records on the House of Mouse’s new streaming platform in the process. When Spotify’s Wrapped feature landed in early December, many converts found they’d used the soundtrack album to help them get through lockdown too. With music at its centre, the story of how Alexander Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda) became one of America’s founding fathers is still just as entertaining, energetic, and powerfully relevant as it was when it first debuted on Broadway in 2015. A proper live-action movie is surely inevitable, but until then this will do just fine.
Best moment: There are many show-stopping numbers to choose from, but ‘Yorktown’ matches expert choreography with catchy, quotable lyrics better than the rest. AW
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Director: Christopher Nolan
When it finally opened in August after being delayed three times due to COVID-19, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster was hailed as the film to save cinema. This didn’t quite happen – though a global box office haul of $350million during a pandemic shouldn’t be sniffed at – but Tenet is definitely no flop. Bewildering and brilliant in equal measure, it follows an enigmatic hero known only as the Protagonist (John David Washington), who discovers that people from the future are sending weapons back in time to the present, but with an “inverted” entropy, meaning everything happens backwards. Once you accept that you won’t fully understand Nolan’s bracingly complicated plot, watching the Protagonist and shadowy handler Neil (Robert Pattinson) try to save the world is lots of fun. Although probably not the year’s most popular film, Tenet is undeniably its most ambitious, hands down.
Best moment: Where to start? The backwards action sequences are so intricate you’ll need several viewings to unpick them, but the brain-scrambling car chase scene in the middle probably edges it. NL
Like this? Try this: Inception, Looper
4. David Byrne’s American Utopia
Director: Spike Lee
David Byrne’s end-of-run Broadway show serves as a portal into the brain of Talking Heads’ gloriously off-kilter performer. Working in collaboration with director Spike Lee, Byrne and his 11-strong band stride splendidly across a bare stage, performing a setlist of well-worn bangers (‘Once in a Lifetime’), lesser-known solo work (‘What A Day That Was’) and recent collaborations (‘I Should Watch TV’), interspersed with musings and memories from Byrne that talk of human connections and hope. A standout cover of Janelle Monáe’s protest song ‘Hell You Talmbout’ is an anthem for divided times, and gives the performance an atmosphere of unity. Seldom will a musician deliver two milestone concert films in their career, but under Lee’s guidance Byrne has managed to equal Jonathan Demme’s 1984 classic Stop Making Sense – and in some aspects, better it.
Best moment: A climactic, foot-stomping rendition of ‘Burning Down the House’ ignites the crowd from the opening notes plucked on Byrne’s acoustic guitar. BW
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3. Uncut Gems
Directors: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
It’s lucky that Uncut Gems came out before lockdown, because the film’s suffocating claustrophobia and stress-fuelled narrative are definitely not COVID-approved. Adam Sandler is a revelation as NYC jeweller Howie, who tries to scam his way to the top with a futile series of gambling schemes. Constantly trying to outwit his vengeful debtors, Howie only ends up pulling the wool further over his own eyes. Sandler’s tragi-comic hero, who interprets misfortune solely as the work of external forces, when really a cavalier attitude, disregard for the feelings of others and addiction to the grift is causing his ruination, proves the Happy Gilmore star can mix it with serious actors when he’s in the mood.
Best moment: Howard’s breakdown – sitting in his office, beaten and bloodied, the gambling addict sobs his heart out to mistress and co-worker Julia. MC
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Director: Bong Joon-ho
Saying too much about Parasite risks ruining the film’s best surprises – not so much plot twists as complete U-turns as it skips from Korean social drama to popcorn horror to black comedy and back again. Best to go in cold if you don’t know much about it, just call it a film about a family of chancers who trick their way into a posh house and leave it at that. Nerve-wracking, hilarious and burning with class rage, director Boon Joon-ho controls every frame with the lightest of touches and an architect’s eye for detail – making Oscar history with the first non-English language film to pick up the Best Picture gong. Still mind-blowing on a second and third watch, even when you know exactly what’s going to happen, Parasite already feels like a cinematic classic.
Best moment: Film’s best ‘hiding under a table’ scene? Probably. It’s hard to think of anything else that makes someone lying motionless look so funny and so frightening – with the tiniest sounds, smells and tricks of the eye almost giving the game away over five perfect minutes of slow-rising tension. PB
1. Da 5 Bloods
Director: Spike Lee
Every Spike Lee film seems to strike a chord, but his second Netflix movie – released in the middle of this summer’s historic anti-racism riots – was so timely it felt like divine intervention. “It’s the spirit. It’s kismet [fate],” he told NME back in June.” Call it what you will – it’s out of my control… but I’m not complaining.” And neither were we. The veteran filmmaker’s powerful, sprawling war epic dug into the past to examine the present, tackling the legacy of US imperialism in Vietnam. It followed four African-American vets who returned to the battlefields of that bloody ’60s conflict, seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader (the late Chadwick Boseman in one of his final, and finest, performances) and the gold fortune he helped them hide. Stuffed with blockbuster action and searing satire, Da 5 Bloods proved that Lee’s finger remains firmly on the pulse of America.
Best moment: Beset by nightmarish visions and soundtracked by a gorgeous Marvin Gaye remix, Delroy Lindo’s PTSD-afflicted soldier breaks down big time in the jungle. AF
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