It’s fair to say that 2020 has been an odd year for movies. The year began with one of the strongest crops of Oscar nominees in a long time, culminating in a powerful win for a beloved filmmaker with a marvellous movie under his belt. Then, however, the coronavirus pandemic hit, closing cinemas and forcing films to either delay their release dates indefinitely or embrace digital download.
So now, at the halfway point of the year, it’s fair to say there are fewer movies than usual to choose from when running down the best of 2020. However, there have been some strong contenders despite the locked doors of the multiplexes.
Read more: Films still coming to cinemas in 2020
For instance, movies that didn’t make the list include the zany superhero chaos of Birds of Prey, Pixar’s heart-warming Onward, powerful #MeToo era drama The Assistant and Tom Hanks’ brilliant performance as US TV icon Mister Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. On the more arthouse end of the spectrum, movies like Georgian gem And Then We Danced and anime romance Weathering With You are also well worth a look.
But here are our picks for the best films of 2020 so far...
10. The Invisible Man
As things stand, Elisabeth Moss is effectively the de facto frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar thanks to her exceptional performance in Leigh Whannell’s charged take on The Invisible Man. Unmoored from the shackles of Universal’s failed Dark Universe, Saw co-creator Whannell turned the story into a very modern tale of gaslighting. The film follows Moss’s abuse survivor as she is tormented by her ex-husband, who is using an invisibility suit after convincing the world he has killed himself.
It was a box office hit to the tune of $125m (£100m) worldwide and stands as one of the most well-reviewed horror movies in years. If Moss does go on to the Oscars, she’d be a rare example of a horror protagonist receiving the respect of the Academy.
9. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Eliza Hittman’s smartly observed drama premiered back in January at the Sundance Film Festival and then went on to win the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival the following month. The awards and acclaim are entirely justified for this powerful story of a young girl who travels across state lines with her cousin in order to obtain an abortion without the need for parental consent.
Screen debutant Sidney Flanigan is terrific in the central role and anchors a naturalistic, freewheeling story that has plenty to say about the barriers placed in front of young women all over the world. Of course, it’s also a searing critique of the American healthcare system that will make British viewers proud to have the NHS.
8. The Personal History of David Copperfield
Armando Iannucci took the word “Dickensian” and gave it a vibrant makeover in his adaptation of the author’s famed work David Copperfield. The casting is colourblind throughout, with Dev Patel taking the lead role as the character navigating every facet of the class system in Victorian England. Peter Capaldi, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie all deliver standout performances in the packed ensemble cast.
Given Iannucci’s history of making tough, incisive political satires, The Personal History of David Copperfield feels in some ways like a step away from his usual work. However, it’s loaded with social commentary and smart writing, along with a family-friendly helping of slapstick and silliness.
7. The Lighthouse
A few years after he introduced the world to his mad vision — and a sadistic goat — with The Witch, Robert Eggers returned to period weirdness with monochrome nightmare The Lighthouse. The movie features Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, locked inside a lighthouse in the midst of a storm and increasingly losing grip on reality. There’s also an ill-fated seagull.
Eggers’s movie is a rapidly unravelling slice of chaos that pulls from Greek mythology to produce a bleak commentary on masculinity. Pattinson and Dafoe deal in crazy facial hair and even crazier accents as they carry the audience through the madness, en route to an unforgettable, grotesque final image.
6. Uncut Gems
There hasn’t been a movie as stressful this year — or perhaps any year — as the Safdie Brothers’ truly bonkers Uncut Gems. The duo handed Adam Sandler his most complex, compelling role in years as the permanently grifting jewellery dealer Howard Ratner — a man whose entire life is based upon the principle of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The film follows him as he attempts to sell a valuable stone at auction, only for it to fall into the hands of a basketball player who’s reluctant to part company with it. It doesn’t sound like the stuff of a dynamite thriller but, in the hands of the Safdies and Sandler, it becomes something truly special.
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
French filmmaker Céline Sciamma has delivered her most acclaimed movie to date with the stunning lesbian romance Portrait of a Lady On Fire. Noémie Merlant portrays a painter who is commissioned to paint Adèle Haenel’s aristocrat in order to produce a portrait which will be sent to her suitor. As they bond, their relationship becomes a romance of exceptional passion and power.
Sciamma’s film is a sweeping, emotional tale with two excellent performances at its heart. She became the first female director to win the Queer Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival and the movie scooped 10 nominations at the Césars — the French equivalent of the Oscars. It’s a potent tear-jerker of a film with a music-inflected finale to rival the power of Whiplash.
Trey Edward Shults caught the attention of cinephiles with his thoughtful horror film It Comes at Night, but has followed it up with something very different. Diptych drama Waves follows Kelvin Harrison Jr. as injured high school wrestler Tyler, then pivots to focus on his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), in the wake of a horrifying incident. Sterling K. Brown is the highlight of proceedings as their demanding, macho father.
Shults’s film uses music to great effect, with the jukebox soundtrack segueing seamlessly into Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s equally strong score. The movie is undeniably arty, with woozy visuals and a loose plot, and runs to two hours, but it boasts extraordinary heft and serves as a poignant look into the heart of a family struggling to find their place in the world.
When everyone first saw the stunning, single take opening sequence of James Bond movie Spectre, nobody knew that it would in fact emerge as a dry run for something even more impressive from director Sam Mendes. 1917 extends that idea for an entire movie, following two soldiers — George MacKay and Game of Thrones alum Dean-Charles Chapman — as they traverse the First World War battlefield to deliver a crucial message.
Read more: Mendes explains how CGI made 1917 work
Mendes’s technical virtuosity is clear from start to finish, helped by master cinematographer Roger Deakins and an evocative score from Thomas Newman. As well as scooping three Oscars and dozens of other awards, the movie made an impressive $375m (£301m) at the global box office.
2. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee follows up his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman with this Netflix drama following a group of Black veterans of the Vietnam War as they return to the country in search of the body of their fallen comrade — and the gold they buried nearby. Delroy Lindo is rightly receiving many of the plaudits for his role as a Trump-supporting powder-keg of a man, but the entire ensemble is uniformly strong.
The film is a sprawling journey through the tumultuous, contentious relationship between the protagonists, as well as the damaging legacy of America’s history in Vietnam. Lee teases out timely themes about the Black experience while delivering some bravura filmmaking, from aspect ratio shifts aplenty to his trademark use of montage and archive footage.
It’s a real gem for Netflix, who acquired the movie when no studio would give Lee the money to make it. At this point, it seems likely they’ll be laughing all the way to the Oscars with this one.
Bong Joon-ho’s genre-defying Parasite has spent the first half of this year making history and smashing records. The movie was the first South Korean film to win any award at the Oscars — it ended up with four, including Best Picture and Best Director — and is the highest-grossing Korean movie of all time. It’s also the most successful foreign language film in the history of the UK box office.
Anyone who has seen the movie will know exactly why it has broken all of these records. Director Bong weaves intricate class commentary into a very entertaining thriller, focusing on the poor Kim family and the way in which they secretly ingratiate themselves into the lives, and indeed the employment, of the wealthy Park clan. Inevitably, their con unravels and chaos ensues.
It’s a triumph of filmmaking on just about every level, cementing director Bong as one of the most acclaimed and sought-after filmmakers in the industry. Whatever he does next, the world will be watching.