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The 20 best movies of 2020 (as picked by Time Out writers)

From ‘1917’ to ‘Rocks’: our pick of the year’s finest films

Written by
Time Out editors

It started with Parasite winning Best Picture and ended with everyone wondering if there’d even be a Best Picture. Yes, 2020 was a movie year like no other – and let’s not forget that the medium more than survived two actual world wars. But despite the closure of cinemas, the switch to streaming and wild uncertainty over what comes next, there’s been plenty of mesmerising films to enjoy. As recognised by our top 20, celebrated by Time Out writers from across the globe, it’s been a great year for female filmmaking, jolt-filled horror movies, and for fans of Terrence Malick and Adam Sandler.

NB all the films included came out in the UK in 2020

RECOMMENDED: The 100 best films of all time.

Photograph: Curzon Artificial Eye

1. Parasite

‘Have you seen Parasite?’ became the new greeting in our office back in January. I hadn’t, and regularly had to vacate the area to avoid spoilers. When I finally watched it during the first week of lockdown, I understood why no one would shut up about it. It switches from comic gold to home-invasion thriller with slick ease. By the end your eyes are wide, your jaw is slack and you can’t figure out if you need a minute alone or you need to immediately press play again. It deserves all that hype – and more.

—Rebecca Russo,
Melbourne editor 

Photograph: Altitude

2. Rocks 

I can’t stop thinking about Rocks. The cast, the script, the way it’s shot: everything about it is so authentic there are moments when you feel you’re watching a documentary rather than a coming-of-age drama. There’s a moment when the lead character, schoolgirl Shola ‘Rocks’ Omotoso, is with her friends on a rooftop, dancing, taking selfies and singing, that is so natural and joyous it’s pure magic to watch. It made me laugh and it made me cry, sometimes all at once.

—Alexandra Sims, London deputy News & Events editor

Saint Maud
Photograph: Studiocanal UK

3. Saint Maud

I was very taken by Rose Glass’s astonishing directorial debut. ‘British seaside horror’ was always going to appeal to me, but I was not expecting to come away from this uncanny masterpiece quite so affected. An unrelentingly eerie atmosphere combines with a barnstorming lead performance from the otherworldly Morfydd Clark to sublime effect. Calling this fiercely original gem a ‘future cult classic’ feels like faint praise indeed. 

—Joe Mackertich, London editor

Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Photograph: Curzon Artificial Eye

4. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

This French romance scratched a very specific itch for me by being a period piece where people repeatedly and dramatically run up to the edges of cliffs (Black Narcissus is another high point in this subgenre). It also established a precedent for fashionable mask-wearing when I needed it the most. If I ever finish one of those adult colouring books, I’ll now absolutely include a subtle reference to a long-abandoned love affair in the spirit of this masterpiece’s titular painting. Maybe the Duolingo owl I spent countless nights with trying to learn French after watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

—Will Gleason, New York editor

A Hidden Life
Photograph: Reiner Bajo

5. A Hidden Life

I’m a sucker for languid shots of birds, meaningful ambles through fields and epic investigations of the human condition, so I’ve always loved a Terrence Malick movies. Big, big feels guaranteed. Except, not so much lately. His last three have left me cold, so I was thrilled to fall under his spell again with A Hidden Life. Just quietly – because, let’s face it, almost no one is talking about it – it’s one of the best, more resonant and moving films of recent years. That said, it is still depressing that a story about a man standing up to Nazis would end up being quite so topical.

—Phil de Semlyen, global film editor

Uncut Gems
Photograph: Courtesy Netflix

6. Uncut Gems

Remember the normal bit of 2020? That brief moment in time was lit up by the Safdie brothers’ modern noir: a squeaky-bum rollercoaster of dirty streets, crims and eccentrics; high life and low life. It’s all centred on Howard Ratner, Adam Sandler’s fast-talking, big-dreaming, New York diamond dealer who gets in deeper and deeper shit, thanks to a rare uncut rock, an impossible loan and an NBA star. It’s only when the credits roll that you find out who the real criminals are: the Oscar jury, for letting this diamond slip through their paws. 

—James Manning, international editor

Lovers Rock
Photograph: Parisa Taghizadeh

7. Lovers Rock

I’ve watched it three times already and could watch it three more tomorrow. It’s less than 70 minutes long and almost entirely set at a house party in west London in 1980 – a pay-on-the-door event in someone’s home for the area’s young West Indian community who are into lovers rock and reggae. Put aside the thrill of being immersed in a house party at a time when you’re not allowed to do exactly that, it’s so moving and so sharply evocative of such a specific time and place that it feels completely convincing and real.

—Dave Calhoun,
global deputy editor-in-chief

Photograph: Francois Duhamel / Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures

8. 1917

Sam Mendes stepped away from the James Bond franchise, but not the thrills and spills, kickstarting the year with a serious bang. I was staggered by this (sorta) one-take Great War epic that casts George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman as battle-weary Tommies tasked with delivering a life-or-death message to another unit. It takes them right through no man’s land and into a world of pain. Stitched almost seamlessly from several long takes, the film’s cumulative effect is mesmerising.

—Stephen A Russell, arts editor, Time Out Sydney

The Lighthouse
Photograph: Eric Chakeen

9. The Lighthouse

Robert Pattinson tosses himself off, bludgeons seagulls, gets pissed on lamp oil and feels the sharp edge of Willem Dafoe’s tongue in Robert Eggers’s scabrous and scary gothic chiller about two nineteenth-century lighthouse keepers going mad on a remote, storm-wracked island. Shot on rich celluloid and with an ominous, compelling sound design, it’s a glittering, dark marvel.

—Chris Waywell, deputy editor, Time Out London

Les Misérables
Photograph: SRAB Films/ Rectangle Productions/Lyly films

10. Les Misérables

Back in September, I came out of my local cinema punching the air. After six months of staring at laptop streams, Les Misérables hooked me with its politically charged dissection of life in a multicultural Parisian banlieue. A trio of slightly pathetic cops are constantly on patrol, pumped up and ready to antagonise whoever they meet, leading to nervy stand-offs that are choreographed to perfection. Rarely has a film felt as timely as Ladj Ly’s dazzling directorial debut. 

Huw Oliver, International commissioning editor

Palm Springs
Photograph: Jessica Perez, Hulu

11. Palm Springs

Yes, it’s a Groundhog Day-inspired film about escaping the repetition of life that was released at a time when, well, you know. Yet Palm Springs is an absolute delight, a buddy comedy and rom-com twist on ‘one of those infinite time loop situations you might’ve heard about’ that stays refreshing thanks to the believably vulnerable chemistry between Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti. That and the presence of a coked-up, crossbow-wielding JK Simmons. 

—Michael Juliano, LA editor

The Invisible Man
Photograph: Mark Rogers

12. The Invisible Man

Proof that big studios can still turn out mid-budget thrillers that defy expectations, rather than just pandering to them. Elisabeth Moss does the heavy lifting as a woman gaslit to the point where even the audience questions her sanity. Combining topical social issues (big tech, surveillance, toxic masculinity) with big jumps, it could be the first Hollywood movie to pinpoint the fears of the new decade. Who could have seen this Invisible Man coming? 

James Hooper, London sales manager

Photograph: Screen Australia

13. Babyteeth

A name like Babyteeth might fool you into thinking you’re set to watch some cutesy film, but this was no cosy coming-of-age flick. It played out like a modern-day Shakespearean tragedy laced with black comedy, full of Australiana and nostalgia for those rebellious high-school days. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room at the end of the screening I went to at Cinema Nova in Melbourne. I even found myself consoling a sobbing lady in the bathroom afterwards.

Rushani Epa, Melbourne food & drink editor

Saint Frances
Photograph: Vertigo Releasing

14. Saint Frances

Kids are messy. Sex is messy. Life is messy. Truths that this American indie is unafraid to show. We meet thirtysomething Bridget when she’s hooking up with, getting pregnant by and going to the abortion clinic with a younger guy. Then she starts nannying for Frances, the six-year-old daughter of a middle-class, mixed-race lesbian couple. This may sound like a exercise in liberal box-ticking, but it’s actually funny and edgy and sweet. A burst of pleasure during the too-short window that cinemas were open this summer. 

Sarah Cohen, deputy chief sub editor, Time Out London

Photograph: Curzon Artificial Eye

15. Shirley

Josephine Decker’s hallucinogenic drama is a performance art installation somehow smuggled into a conventional biopic. It’s ‘about’ the life of American gothic writer Shirley Jackson, but is almost entirely fictionalised. Through its domestic delirium, Decker tells a story of Jackson’s destructive artistic power by drawing us in to her writing process. At one point, a key character – Rose – approaches Jackson to say that her short story made her feel ‘thrillingly horrible’. Shirley had the same effect on me. It is grimy and unyielding, a film that creeps into your brain like black mould – and stays there. 

Katie McCabe, London events editor

I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Photograph: Netflix

16. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

There’s a relatively deflating likely ‘explanation’ for the events in Charlie Kaufman’s typically oblique roadtrip movie. For me, it works best simply as a disorientating, intense horror about being trapped in a relationship. It’s not a violent or abusive one, but one full of weird little hells that Jessie Buckley’s stoic young woman forced to endure as she goes on an ill-advised visit to meet the parents of Jake (Jesse Plemons), her partner of seven weeks who she’s contemplating dumping. It’s a queasy situation in and of itself. Typically, Kaufman pushes it into full-on surrealist nightmare. 

Andrzej Lukowski, London culture editor

Photograph: Amanda Matlovich

17. Possessor

If you can stomach gratuitous gore and a mind-bending narrative, Possessor is the bloody sci-fi thriller you've been searching for. Writer-director Brandon Cronenberg carries on the body horror legacy of his father, imagining a world in which trained assassins can take over the minds and physiques of strangers and use them as violent tools. It's a messy movie that spills more than a little blood while mulling over the concept of personal identity, but it's full of big ideas that will get stuck in your (hopefully unpossessed) brain. 

Zach Long, deputy editor, Time Out Chicago

Photograph: Magnet Releasing

18. Alone

I live for a heart-pounding thriller, so when this one popped up on my streaming queue, I gladly rented it. The storyline isn’t revolutionary – woman is abducted by man, woman escapes man, chase ensues – but it’s the relentlessness of the thing that hits you. Halfway through I was thinking: ‘How does this poor woman possibly have another 45 minutes of fight left in her?’ Oh, but she does. If you enjoy the feeling of having your heart thump out of your chest, this is the flick for you. 

Morgan Olsen, Chicago editor

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado 
Photograph: Netflix

19. Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado 

If had already been wowed by his Princess Di hair and bejewelled capes, TV astrologer Walter Mercado’s message of universal love definitely would have won me over. A little-known figure outside his native Puerto Rico (where he was a superstar), he died shortly after this Netflix was filmed, but this doc does a lovely job of bottling his irrepressible positivity and capturing a unique androgynous icon in a macho world. Heck, even Lin Manuel Miranda is giddy at the chance to meet him in this movie. 

Laura Richards, London digital director

Photograph: Warner Bros.

20. Tenet

My favourite film-watching experience of the year, largely because it was so refreshing to watch something not on my TV, but also because the time-bending storyline really captured my imagination. Did I understand the plot? Barely. Did I miss a lot of the dialogue due to poor sound? Absolutely. Did I find Clémence Poésy's explanation of time inversion blasé? Yes. Yes, I did. Yet despite these flaws I was gripped from the cold open opera house siege right to the temporal pincer movement finale. Tenet drove home just how much I miss the big screen. 

Charlie Woods, product manager, London

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