The 50 best films of 2020

2020 has been a strange and tragic year, one which has transformed how a viewer consumes media. Through streaming platforms on smartphones, instead of participating in the communal act of watching a movie in a theatre, the film industry has encountered major and hugely significant changes. Many experts predicted that the cinemas and theatres would not survive the lockdowns, but they are finally opening up in places around the world with appropriate precautions, indicating that there is still hope that the unprecedented changes are reversible.

However, it is essential to remember that the pandemic is very much a part of our reality for now and health guidelines are crucial for the safe operation of film theatres. Ben Roberts, the chief executive of the British Film Institute, commented: “For many people, this will have forever shifted their perception of access to film at home, and that’s great. I also think we are going to value everything from a cup of coffee to the price of a cinema ticket in a different way. The nation will be poorer, experiences will have to justify the cost, which is why subscription models and memberships are so popular. However! The cinema experience is unique and I’m confident that audiences will start to cautiously return.”

With Roberts’s words of optimism ringing in our ears, we take a look at some of the best films that were released this year, ranging from psychological thrillers to social documentaries and featuring established filmmakers as well as emerging talents.

50 best films of 2020:

50. Koko-di Koko-da (Johannes Nyholm)

Nyholm’s psychological horror film follows a couple who go camping in the woods, hoping that the trip will help resolve the problems in their marriage. However, things go awry when they find themselves experiencing torture and trauma while caught in a time loop. The film externalises the perils of intra-personal relationship and translates them to the realm of dark fantasy.

The filmmaker said, “Mainly, it’s about [how in life you’re always] trying to make [yourself] feel safe; you build walls around you like a safety net, when you create a family and have relationships. But you don’t realise that life is very fragile, and all of this can go away anytime. There’s nothing you can really do about that.”

49. Calm with Horses (Nick Rowland)

Set in rural Ireland, Rowland’s crime drama is based on a short story by Colin Barrett. It tells the story of an ex-boxer who tries to ensure his autistic son’s well-being by working as an enforcer for a crime family. Calm with Horses questions what personal responsibility means in the modern world and whether conflicting moral systems can lead to a better future.

“I’ve kind of known I want to do a rally driving movie,” Rowland admitted. “Which is why I wanted to put a car chase in Calm With Horses, as a little audition for whoever’s watching. It’s obviously because I’m from that sport and that world, I have quite a good visceral sense of what that world is like. I think there’s a lot of cinematic opportunity that hasn’t really been tapped into before.”

48. Uncle Frank (Alan Ball)

Writer-director Alan Ball’s road film is set in the 1970s and stars Paul Bettany as a gay professor of literature who drives home with his teenage niece (Sophia Lillis) in order to attend his father’s funeral and confront his past. The film beautifully explores the idea of personal identity through the complicated machinations of an American family.

“This movie was percolating in my head for about 25 years before I sat down to write the script. And the instigating factor occurred when I came out of the closet to my mom, who told me she thought my dad might have been “that way” too,” Ball revealed.

Adding, “I don’t know if that’s true because he was already dead, but I later learned about a friend of his who drowned and how my dad accompanied the body on the train back to their hometown of Asheville, North Carolina. So, for about 25 years, I had all of these “what if?” ideas floating around in my head. What if that was true about my dad? What if there was something between him and this young man who drowned? How might that have played itself out?”

47. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner)

Little Joe is an unconventional sci-fi drama with elements of horror, inspired by Frankenstein and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It stars Emily Beecham as a single mother and a plant breeder who successfully engineers a species which makes its owner happy. For her performance, Beecham won the award for Best Actress at Cannes Film Festival.

Hausner reflected, “I think in all different times of humankind, the truth has always changed. It’s not only the scientific truth that has changed. The ideology of what we think is right and wrong has changed. For example, I made a film before Little Joe called Amour Fou, and it takes place in 1811 Germany.

“Back then, people thought democracy was not a very good idea and monarchy was providing much more stability and reason to political decisions. Now we live in a time where we think democracy is the best version we know, and monarchy is merely some dictatorship.”

46. Mr Jones (Agnieszka Holland)

Loosely based on the life of a Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, Holland’s biographical thriller tells the story of how Jones risked his life to break the news about the famines caused by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. However, when he makes it back to Britain, nobody believes his accounts.

“If you have a society where fake news sells better than real news on the internet, then anything can happen,” Holland said. “This is the message of Orwell and it is the message of my film. But it is something I have come to realise more fully after I made the film. If you have a corrupted media, then the audience become indifferent to the news, they don’t care or trust it and this situation can lay the ground for fascism, racism and all the horrors we have seen before.”

45. The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

This sci-fi mystery film is set in 1950s New Mexico, and it features the gripping tale of two children who discover an unknown radio frequency, suspecting that it might have originated in outer space. Loosely based on the Kecksburg UFO incident and Foss Lake Disappearances, the film won the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I love film, don’t get me wrong,” Patterson clarified. “But oddly enough, the thing I was most inspired by when I was writing this at the time, was 19th-century novels. Was War and Peace. Was Moby Dick. And the thing I noticed about all this, the characters in those books are incredibly three-dimensional like they go through everything. They have insecurities, they’re happy. One moment they’re depressed, the next moment… I wanted that in our characters.”

44. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder)

Marder’s recent drama film presents the moving story of a drummer whose life begins to fall apart when he starts to lose his hearing, forcing him to embrace a deafening silence. Shot in four weeks, a significant portion of the cast belonged to the deaf community. It won the Golden Eye for Best International Film at the Zurich Film Festival.

Marder explained, “It’s part of the immersive aspect of this that challenges us in a very distinct way in this movie, which is that we can’t leave, we are with him and not only are with him, but we’re with him in the years. We’re very much in this highly sensory, highly visceral landscape of being with Rubin. It’s a special language. That was really the eureka moment, that was the real big turning point with the script.”

43. Host (Rob Savage)

This experimental horror film tries to adapt the conventions of the found footage genre to the changing world in 2020, structuring the narrative in the form of Zoom calls used by friends to keep in touch and hold online séances for fun. It resonated with audiences because of the immediacy of its method, making Host a popular watch during the pandemic.

“One thing that I loved about Host is, the way that people usually talk about films, it’s always as though there’s a sole author. It’s auteur theory, all that nonsense, which is bullshit. This film, throughout the creative process, totally hammered that home. It was about investing trust in every single collaborator, every person who made this movie from the cast to the writers to the producers, we’re all collaborative co-authors,” Savage said.

42. Ammonite (Francis Lee)

Partially inspired by the life of British palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), it focuses on her romantic relationship with a geologist (played by Saoirse Ronan). It is a moving LGBTQ work of art but its historical accuracy has been questioned, with no evidence about Anning’s lovers.

“If I can tell a story in pictures, not words,” Lee said, “dialogue has to fight hard to play in my film. I will get rid of it if I can tell it visually. I love that fantastic actors like Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, and Saoirse Ronan can deliver without telling us, ‘This is what’s going on.'”

41. Miss Juneteenth (Channing Godfrey Peoples)

A smart, multi-faceted commentary on the life of Black people in America, the plot revolves around a former beauty queen who forces her rebellious daughter to participate in the local Miss Juneteenth pageant. This was Peoples’ first feature film, one that got her critical acclaim as well as multiple awards.

“It was important that I try to keep the experience as authentic as possible, and having very vivid memories as a kid, looking up at those young, Black women on that stage, feeling so affirmed because they looked confident, excited and hopeful, was very helpful in recreating the experience,” Peoples said. “It was a moment for me that was very special, and one that had to be realistically worked into the story.”

40. Lynn + Lucy (Fyzal Boulifa)

A cinematic chronicle of a modern friendship, this intense drama follows the crests and troughs of the relationship between two lifelong friends who find themselves in unfamiliar territory when one of them becomes a mother. Boulifa earned a British Independent Film Award nomination for Best Debut Director for his wonderful narrative feature.

Boulifa commented, “I was aware that it had a classical tragedy element to it. The obvious one was Medea, with the death of the children. At the same time I didn’t want it to become too schematic, I felt there had to be a simplicity to it for that to read, and a decontextualisation in the environment of the film. Having the simplicity of them living on opposite sides of the road gives it the sense of a fable or a moral tale, I feel.

“I suppose what attracted me was that I could take working class characters but speak about bigger things. I felt like it would be subtly different from social realism, where everything is so embedded in a specific moment and focused on particular social issues that it can feel quite narrow.”

39. Spaceship Earth (Matt Wolf)

Spaceship Earth is an intriguing documentary film about quarantine but not the kind we have become accustomed to. It focuses on an experiment from 1991 where eight people quarantined themselves for two years inside Biosphere-2, a microcosm of Earth’s ecosystem which they engineered themselves.

Wolf revealed, “I’m always kind of poking around the internet looking for film ideas, and I came across these really striking images of eight people in bright red jumpsuits. They looked like the band Devo, standing in front of a giant glass pyramid.

“And I honestly thought it was a still from a science fiction movie I hadn’t seen before, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the structure was real and that these people indeed lived inside of it. And from that point on, I was determined to tell their story.”

38. Rocks (Sarah Gavron)

Gavron’s coming-of-age drama is a riveting story about a Black British teenage girl who finds herself navigating the broken system and caring for her brother after her mother abandons them. It is representative of the struggles of many teenage girls in similar positions who refuse to give up.

“When I was growing up, there were very few films about teenage girls, especially the teenage girls that you see on the street, at the bus stop, on the buses or in schools,” said Gavron. “So, I was talking to a lot of the creative team about making a film about young people.”

37. Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

The film that was supposed to save the theatres during the pandemic. Throughout his career, Nolan had a few near misses, and Tenet is undoubtedly one of them. Although its production and visual narrative was praised by critics, the film’s complicated plot about a secret agent trying to stop the third World War by manipulating time failed to resonate with most audiences. That said, in a difficult year for cinema, it is undoubted that Nolan provided a beacon of hope with Tenet.

Nolan declared, “All I can really take responsibility for is making the best film that I can. I think cinema is bigger than any one film one way or another, and I think people tend to simplify things a bit, particularly in a time like this. I’m just very pleased that the studio feels they can let the film play in places where theatres have been able to open.

“I’m just very, very pleased that audiences around the world are beginning to be able to respond to the film, because, for me as a filmmaker, the film is not finished until the audiences gets to see it and tell me what it is that I’ve done.”

36. Mank (David Fincher)

A film about film, David Fincher’s biographical drama focuses on the development of one of the most iconic works of cinema: Citizen Kane. Based on a screenplay written by Fincher’s late father, it follows the travails of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz while working on Orson Welles’ magnum opus.

Fincher said, “Welles and Mankiewicz were people who desperately needed one another. To go after Hearst took a kind of hubris that not a lot of people had. And it was what Mankiewicz wanted to do, but it was the impish grin of the 23-year-old director of War of the Worlds that made it happen. I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about collaboration.

“How do you solve a problem like Herman Mankiewicz? How do you push him out of his comfort zone? You take him away from the trappings that would allow him to be this hot mess, and you put him out in the desert, and subject him to a schedule, and it still ends up being a clusterfuck, but interesting stuff came out of it.”

35. The Trouble With Being Born (Sandra Wollner)

Wollner’s complex sci-fi film explores the increasingly important question of post-humanism, featuring an android who was built as a replacement by a man who lost his daughter. The controversial film received the Special Jury Award in the Encounters section at the Berlin Film Festival.

“For me, it’s basically a film about a child-like android that can be programmed to do anything you want – all the darkest things you can imagine. And yet it just doesn’t care; it wants what it’s programmed to want. I found that aspect quite interesting,” Wollner admitted.

“I felt it allowed me to go deeper into exploring our human mindset, but it was hard for me, too, especially during the editing process. I understand if someone finds these scenes shocking. But in the world that’s becoming more and more ‘virtualised’, we are already able to project our inner thoughts and desires onto other people.”

34. Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

Set in a technologically advanced future where humans can take control of other individuals by implanting devices into their skulls, Possessor takes a harrowing look at a dystopian future that is entirely within the realm of belief. The opening scene itself introduces us to the central theme of the film: visceral violence. We see a woman inserting a needle into her scalp and “calibrating” it with the help of a device, a posthuman vision of the human anatomy: wired and tuned.

The film is a tribute to the body horror genre which his father, the legendary David Cronenberg, pioneered but it is also Brandon’s own modern interpretation of this particular brand of fear. Possessor employs a lot of interesting concepts, and the visual narrative is sublime, but it still feels like the slightly flawed work of a filmmaker who is trying to find his voice.

33. Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles)

An experimental western which incorporates elements from other genres, Bacurau is set in a small Brazilian town which becomes a heterotopic space with strange occurrences after its matriarch passes away. The film claimed victory in the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Filho said, “I think when you write a script, the biggest challenge is to make it not to do the usual stuff. For example, I was on a plane, and I could see this other person’s monitor watching…Captain Marvel, the recent one.

“And then I was looking at it and then a car chase began. And I go, ‘Why did they write and shoot this car chase? It looks like a thousand car chases’. You know, every other film made over the last 50 years. So, when you’re writing the script, the scenes have to be interesting for you as a challenge. They have to be interesting to you as a good scene, and as a scene that maybe hasn’t really been done many times, and will serve the film narratively.”

32. The Assistant (Kitty Green)

Kitty Green’s drama film stars Julia Garner as Jane, a college grad who gets a shot at her dream job working at a film production company. However, her world begins to crumble as she notices the instances of rampant sexual harassment in her office sphere.

Green said, “The thing that really surprised me about the system in this world is how many women left the film industry because they didn’t feel like there was a place for them or they didn’t see any sort of a way up the corporate ladder. I was pretty shocked by how badly people are treated in entry-level positions. Not just women, but men and women across the board, and how gendered those weapons are.

“It’s pretty shocking, the idea that women are left making the coffee and miss out on important meetings. So I got these crazy stories but I was more interested in the sort of stories that were universal and more relevant to anyone who works or has worked in an entry-level position before, so that became the focus.”

31. County lines (Henry Blake)

Henry Blake takes inspiration from real events for his powerful drama about childhood and crime, following the story of a 14-year-old boy who is forced to be a part of an enterprise which makes its profits by exploiting children. The film earned four British Independent Film Award nominations for its acting as well as its execution.

“I’ve been a youth worker for 11 years”, said director Henry Blake. “I worked predominantly with young boys aged 10 to 17 – really fucked-up cases. I was seeing a hell of a lot of neglect, poverty, sexual abuse, physical abuse…unfortunately within the social care sector it’s what we call the ‘standard stuff’.

“But in 2015, a colleague rang me up and asked me to help out with a group of boys who were all being traumatised, trafficked or exploited by County Lines gangs. I’d heard about it before, but that was the first time it was alive in the room for me.”

30. Relic (Natalie Erika James)

This horror drama film externalises the abstract concept of dementia, portraying it as a damp rot which spreads around the house of the matriarch Edna. It takes the psychological aspect of the horror genre and deconstructs it through more direct methods.

The filmmaker said, “It’s quite a personal origin story. I co-wrote it with my co-writer Christian White, so we’ve kind of been on it from the outset. My grandmother actually had Alzheimer’s herself. I started writing the project on the trip to go visit her, and it was the first time she couldn’t remember who I was.

“And the first time I had a sense of someone who had only ever looked at you with love looking at you like a stranger. That feeling really stuck with me. She also lived in this quiet, creepy traditional Japanese house that really scared me as a kid. Those things just came together.”

29. Crip Camp (James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham)

Set in 1971 at a summer camp in New York, Crip Camp is a heartwarming account of Camp Jened: a safe haven for disabled people which operated for decades and inspired many of its alumni to fight for disabled people’s rights in today’s world. The film was nominated for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, winning the Audience Award.

Nicole Newnham commented, “Some have said this is the perfect time for the film to come out. This health crisis is impacting people who are vulnerable, and this film shows how a lot of that vulnerability is systemic. We want people to see that it is possible to change things and make the world a better place for everyone. This film shows that a small committed group of people can make a huge difference. We need to ask ourselves, when this is over, how will we rebuild the society that we want to see?”

28. Mangrove (Steve McQueen)

Based on the 1971 trial of the Mangrove Nine, McQueen’s historical drama is a part of an anthology series which chronicles the struggles of West Indian immigrants in London during that period. The film is the brilliant resurfacing of a suppressed history, forcing us to confront our past crimes.

Despite McQueen’s insistence that he is not a political filmmaker, he said, “No, but then again, even falling in love is political. Nothing is isolated from the world we live in. It’s all political to some degree even, especially, being non-political.”

27. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe)

Based on August Wilson’s famous play, this film marked one of Chadwick Boseman’s final appearances. It stars Viola Davis as the iconic blues singer Ma Rainey, focusing on the dynamics between her and her band. The film was awarded the Best Ensemble Cast by the Boston Society of Film Critics.

Davis said of Wolfe, “I think that he captures our humour as Black people. He captures our humour, our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanises us. And he allows us to talk.” Wolfe added, “Well, it’s a brilliant piece. And it’s a celebrated work and so that if I did it badly or redid it badly, everybody would go, ‘You did it badly.'”

26. Shirley (Josephine Decker)

Based on a novel about the Life of writer Shirley Jackson (played by Elizabeth Moss), the film focuses on the famous horror novelist’s while she tries to find inspiration for her next book Hangsaman. Shirley was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival where it also won the prize for Auteur Filmmaking.

“We took the novel as our starting point and then in writing the script, found new things and were also deeply inspired by the characters that Susan had drawn in the novel,” Decker said. “So, it’s definitely not an exact replica of the novel, it takes creative liberties. It’s so sweet, I saw the novelist Susan, and she seemed really excited by where we had taken the film.”

25. Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg)

Thomas Vinterberg’s touching drama stars Mads Mikkelsen as a high school teacher who decides to embark on an experiment with his colleagues, testing whether getting drunk daily will improve their respective lives. Another Round has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best International Film, winning multiple awards at other major film festivals.

“We need an element of exploration and risk at all times and in all sides of our lives,” the director said. “I think the ritualistic repetitiousness of life can be very fruitful. It makes you understand time and it makes you frame your life, but within that rhythm, there has to be an element of risk exploration.”

24. The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)

Acclaimed screenwriter/director Aaron Sorkin’s latest legal drama is inspired by the heroic acts of the Chicago Seven, anti-Vietnam war protestors who were charged with conspiracy. It is a gripping cinematic rendition of an ideological conflict between the institutions of the country and the people who question it.

Sorkin recalled, “Fourteen years ago, [Steven Spielberg told me] he wanted to make a movie about the Chicago Seven. And I said, ‘That’s a great idea. That would make a great movie. Count me in and sign me up!’ And I walked out of his house, called my father, and asked him who the Chicago Seven were. I didn’t have any idea what Steven was talking about. I was just saying yes to working with Steven Spielberg the way literally any writer would.”

23. Days (Tsai Ming-liang)

Another beautiful drama by the Taiwanese master, Tsai Ming-liang returns to his characteristically minimalist style with very little dialogue. It is a philosophical enquiry about the human condition which has acquired a fundamentally alienated quality due to modernity. Ming-liang beautifully navigates the labyrinthine constructs of sexuality and identity, earning him the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival.

The filmmaker revealed, “For this film, Days, I didn’t need a script at all because we don’t really have a so-called ‘team’ for shooting the film: I just had a cinematographer with me, and I don’t need a script for the outline and the plot, and so I didn’t need to explain to him what the film was about.”

22. There Is No Evil (Mohammad Rasoulof)

Based on the director’s own experiences, the film launches a brilliant investigation of the death penalty in Iran through four separate stories. It subjects the repressive state apparatuses to an exigent moral judgement. There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Rasoulof explained, “My filmmaking goal is not just to focus on the authoritarian regime or the power it wields, but rather what it does to the people and how it influences their lives. I look at the people and how they are confronted by the issues generated by a force like the Iranian state.

Based on the director’s own experiences, the film launches a brilliant investigation of the death penalty in Iran through four separate stories. It subjects the repressive state apparatuses to an exigent moral judgement. There Is No Evil won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Rasoulof explained, “My filmmaking goal is not just to focus on the authoritarian regime or the power it wields, but rather what it does to the people and how it influences their lives. I look at the people and how they are confronted by the issues generated by a force like the Iranian state.

“In There Is No Evil, I wanted to discuss what would happen if people said no, if they rejected the things they are asked to do, and the consequences this would have on their lives. An important point is that in an authoritarian regime everything is unavoidably political, to the extent that even being silent is a political act because it enforces the status quo.”

21. Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart)

Wolfwalkers is the latest addition to Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon’s growing oeuvre, one that already includes brilliant works like the Oscar-nominated The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Co-director Tomm Moore called it “the final panel of our Irish folklore triptych.” When most studios are making the switch to CGI, it is refreshing to see the stunning hand-drawn animation style and the unique visuals.

Wolfwalkers might be guilty of using familiar archetypes and motifs but it presents them as a part of its own unique artistic vision. With its relevant questions about environmental destruction, evils of colonisation and proto-feminism, Cartoon Saloon’s latest work makes a strong case for being one of the best animated features of 2020.

20. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill and Turner Ross)

An experimental documentary which plays with the limits of the genre, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is the cinematic funeral of a Las Vegas bar that’s shutting down. It offers an authentic look at the locals who frequent it, portraying the connections and the memories they share.

“We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that,” Turner Ross revealed.

Continuing, “We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, ‘Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?’ But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.”

19. Striding into the Wind (Wei Shujun)

Striding Into The Wind is Chinese director Wei Shujun’s feature film debut and a promising one at that. The deeply irreverent work can be shoved into the road-trip genre but doing so would be a gross misinterpretation of Wei’s thesis. At first glance, it appears to be yet another recreation of the disillusioned youth archetype, but we slowly realise that it is actually the manifestation of a disillusioned filmmaker’s creative sensibilities: a gorgeous anti-genre piece.

The film is an unconventional and semi-autobiographical case-study of Kun, a young Chinese student who is in the last year of his sound engineering course at film school. It is a powerful chronicle of a young man’s life who loses everything he once had: love, the possibility of a bright future, college education and the potential of a liberated life.

18. The Cloud in Her Room (Xinyuan Zheng Lu)

Xinyuan Zheng Lu’s impressive feature film debut has earned her widespread acclaim as well as multiple accolades, including the top prize at the 2020 Rotterdam Film Festival as well as the TIFF Award for Best Directing. The Cloud in Her Room is a poetic look at the 22-year-old protagonist’s life when she returns to her hometown, trying to make sense of all the changes that have happened.

The director said, “The film was shot in my hometown. It’s a very modern story about people around my age. It’s not directly derived from my life, but it definitely holds some of my memories, people, and experiences that I’ve had before. I started the script in 2014 when I first moved from China to the US.

“When we began production later, I didn’t want to make a nostalgic piece about the past. I tried to keep the film in the present tense by working with non-professional actors and shooting on-location, reshaping the project in the process of making this film. Once released, the film has its own life. How it impacts the actors’ lives, how it interacts with the audience — I just let it be. It’s about the film itself and Life itself.”

17. The Painted Bird (Václav Marhoul)

The first film to use the Interslavic language, The Painted Bird is a powerful cinematic adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel. Set in Poland, it follows the touching journey of a young Jewish boy who hides in the forest in order to save his life, experiencing the dark horrors of war. The film won 9 out of 11 Czech Lion Award nominations, including Best Film.

The filmmaker said, “While I was researching what had been said about The Painted Bird, I found that many people thought it couldn’t be turned into a film because it was too brutal and complicated of a story. Jean-Claude Carrière once said—and I think he is absolutely right—that the problem of any adaption from any book into a movie is that each person will have his or her own key into the material.”

16. Family Romance LLC (Werner Herzog)

An experimental drama which almost qualifies as a mockumentary, Family Romance LLC is Werner Herzog’s scathing indictment of a pervasive culture of corporatism which threatens to replace the real with the replica. It is the case study of a business called Family Romance which rents agents to play the roles of loved ones when they aren’t around.

“The actors are so natural and so good that it almost feels like a documentary, but of course, it is not,” Herzog clarified. “It is highly, highly stylised, highly organised, highly scripted. Even professional movie watchers believe it’s a documentary. Although it’s so evident, it cannot be a documentary.”

15. Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Dolan)

A beautifully emotional exploration of homoeroticism and friendship, Xavier Dolan stars in his own film as Maxime who struggles to express his love for his best friend Matthias. Dolan makes us feel the palpable sexual tension as well as frustration, shrouding it all with the intentions of poetic investigations.

Dolan said, “Matthias and Maxime is about finding yourself, trying new things, exploring the otherness in you, in others, in situations. I imagine the following years as creatively stimulating and wild, and curious. It’s daunting to think I’m beginning a new cycle in my life; ageing. And at the same time, as an artist, it’s so exciting.”

14. Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)

Spike Lee’s brilliant war drama revolves around four African American veterans who return to Vietnam in search of gold only to be confronted with the horrors of a violent history. Da 5 Bloods has Lee’s characteristically energetic visual narrative through which it presents the legacy of the Vietnam war.

“A black Vietnam vet who saw the film, said, ‘Spike, what the fuck took you so long?'” Lee said. “Black and brown Vietnam vets, they loved the film, and that’s my validation. They put their lives on the line, for the red, white, and blue, while also knowing that their brothers and sisters were fighting another war in the United States of America.”

13. Saint Maud (Rose Glass)

Rose Glass’ compelling feature film debut is a psychological horror film asks the age-old questions of faith and spirituality, subverting the inherent morality of those questions by contextualising them within the horror framework. It revolves around an obsessive Catholic nurse who tries to save the soul of one of her patients.

Glass revealed, “I started thinking about it just around the time I was finishing film school, so about five years ago. The initial scenario I thought was interesting was about a young woman — I think she was even a nun, at the beginning — who hears the voice of God in her head and falls in love with him. So it was going to be this weird, sort of kinky, sadomasochistic relationship between a nun and the voice of God in her head. I thought that sounded fun.”

12. Time (Garrett Bradley)

A scathing attack on the American prison system, Time follows Sibil Fox Richardson on her heartbreaking quest to have her husband, serving a 60-year sentence, released. The film combines original footage with raw home videos, accentuating the intimacy and emotions of the story. For her brilliant work, Bradley became the first African American woman to win the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I wanted to show the ripple effect of what it means to incarcerate 2.3 million people,” Bradley explained. “We think about the magnitude of people that are incarcerated, but we have no optics, no sort of visual examples of what that looks like. We’re dealing with an invisible community. In a way, the only way we can bear witness to their experience is through the people who are on the outside.”

11. Ultraviolence (Ken Fero)

Nineteen years in the making, UK documentary filmmaker Ken Fero has produced a startlingly prescient and powerful chronicle of a broken system which continues targeting marginalised individuals, people who have been stripped off their human rights. Ultraviolence is a lot of things: it is a letter to Fero’s own son, it is an archive of documented injustice, it is an unceasing battle-cry for equality but more importantly, it is needed.

Structured in the form of memories, Fero transitions from one act of police brutality to the next. He employs inter-titles like Jean-Luc Godard and is conscious of the conventions of filmmaking, but how does one frame death? Fero reflects: “The filmmaker Pasolini believed that the long take was the central element of cinema. In filmmaking, death is often displayed as sudden. Here, we watch death happen. It is not cinematic. It is brutal.”

10. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov)

Set in Leningrad during the Second World War, Beanpole presents the legacy of this pivotal moment in human history: the legacy of permanent physical as well as psychological destruction. In the middle of this massacred city, two young women launch a rebellion against the omnipresent pessimism by learning to love.

“Most critical reactions called it ‘two lesbians in World War II.’ I was like, okay, if you think so, alright, I can do nothing about that,” the director admitted. “But as I said, love has no gender. And it’s like this photo of Robert Capa of the two women dancing at the end of World War II: it’s not about two women in love, it’s about human relations. It’s more than a gender love.”

9. A Thousand Cuts (Ramona S. Díaz)

Ramona Díaz’s impactful documentary about the struggles of the outspoken Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa investigates the questionable administration of President Rodrigo Duterte and his diversionary war on drugs. Through Ressa’s story, the film comments on the problematic erosion of a free press by exploring the conflicts between the conservative government and the press.

Díaz recalled, “I started talking to people on the ground in Manila at the end of 2017. I was there for at least four months and in those four months, I met Maria. She was the loudest voice speaking against Duterte at that time. We met and that was the start. It was apparent to me that she was gonna be the fulcrum on which the film rests.”

8. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo)

Acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s drama is an observant analysis of its characters, presenting narrative tropes about friendship but always embedding more profound philosophical implications in the subtext of the film. It is the story of a woman who runs into her friends while her husband is away, a woman who discovers how her life looks from the outside through these interactions.

The filmmaker maintains, “Life, or being, always far surpasses any generalisation. So the way I approach it, in terms of making a film, is that I try to push away all kinds of generalisations, all kinds of technique, all kinds of expectations about a certain effect, and just believe in myself that these things that come to me will be the right ones.”

7. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao)

The first film to win the highest honours at both the Venice Film Festival as well as TIFF, Nomadland stars Frances McDormand as a traveller who reacts to the economic collapse of a small town by setting out to explore the mystical American West. Another masterclass in acting by McDormand, her collaboration with Zhao makes Nomadland one of the best films of the year.

“I’m not the kind of filmmaker who just makes films,” Zhao said. “I have to be in love with my subject matter and want to learn more about it. Someone once said to me that passion doesn’t sustain, but curiosity does. I have to be excited by little things I discover along the way.”

6. Minari (Lee Issac Chung)

A semi-autobiographical account of the director’s own experiences, Minari is a moving portrait of a Korean-American family and their struggles with the failed ideal of the American Dream. Among several accolades, the film won the Grand Jury Award as well as the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

“We were trying to tell the story of, ‘What’s it like when you wake up and you just are?’ — which is how I wake up,” star Steven Yeun said. “I don’t really wake up being like, ‘I’m a Korean-American person living in a white American world.’

“I’m just like, ‘I’m up now. What do I want to eat?’ When we ignored the literal parameters, it unveiled a more truthful humanity: a story about a father, and a mother, and a family, and a son, and a grandmother, and about hardship, and about perseverance, and about faith and hope and what it takes to continue on in this difficult life.”

5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman)

Based on the eponymous 2016 novel by Iain Reid, the film deceptively revolves around the story of a couple who are on their way to visit the boyfriend, Jake’s (played by Jesse Plemons) parents. Kaufman takes the grand metaphysical explorations of Synecdoche, New York and Being John Malkovich and condenses their essence into a conversation-driven investigation like his 2015 stop-motion animated film Anomalisa. 

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things is Kaufman’s scathing indictment of the societal fetishisation of “genius”. He presents an unforgiving picture of the common man: filled with anxieties, fearful of death and propped up with an unoriginal patchwork of borrowed identities.

4. Limbo (Ben Sharrock)

Set on an imaginary remote Scottish island, Limbo is an unconventional look at what it means to be a refugee in today’s world. Simultaneously funny and moving, it tells the story of a group of asylum seekers who try to assimilate the national identity while waiting to know about their future.

“It started out with a strong personal desire to make a film that, broadly speaking, would touch on the subject of the ‘refugee crisis’ by focusing on the individual human experience of a Syrian asylum seeker,” Sharrock said. “I set out to write the screenplay with a big list of things that I wanted to avoid – sensationalising the subject and using a Western character as a vehicle to tell this story were at the top of the list.”

3. About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)

Roy Andersson’s mesmerising Swedish drama attempts to understand the peculiarities of the human condition through vignettes, featuring the likes of Adolf Hitler and Ivan the Terrible. With elements of absurdist humour and the unsettling air of philosophical reflection, About Endlessness is a compelling work of cinematic art which won the Silver Lion for Best Direction at the Venice Film Festival.

“My agenda is having the audience, just like the king in the story, wishing the film would never end – I feel I’ve almost succeeded,” the director admitted. “And then, as usual, you will meet my different human beings, all of them part of us, part of existence, for whom I hope to show respect and be true to. Sometimes it can be cruel, and often it’s very vulnerable, this life.”

2. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

Eliza Hittman’s powerful argument against pro-life conservatism is beautifully executed in her recent drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always. It presents the crippling impact of a teenage pregnancy on the psyche of an adolescent, especially when abortion laws do not let young girls be in control of their bodies. The film won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival.

“It was a challenge, because it’s not a documentary, and it’s not procedural narrative,” Hittman said. “It really is about her subjective experience, so I tried to mine and find out as much information as I could, but then really tell the experience from her point of view. So we’re not seeing the whole experience, we’re seeing the moments of the experience that affect her the greatest.”

1. First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)

American screenwriter and director Kelly Reichardt is known for her minimalist explorations of economic anxieties that are often omnipresent in rural communities. For the past 25 years, she has been constructing quiet and devasting visions of life, focusing on the American wild and the economic margins of society. Reichardt’s latest film First Cow is set in the 19th century and is an adaptation of co-screenwriter Jonathan Raymond’s novel, The Half Life.

The film focuses on two travellers who share the common dream of garnering wealth by utilising the town’s prized cow. It is a poetic depiction of friendship as well as an insightful look at the origins of the American Dream, how inequality and failure have always operated in capitalist systems.

Reichardt explained, “The cow was sort of the key that unlocked the whole thing. The novel spans four decades, there’s a trip to China, King Lu is really two different characters in the novel. For a decade, I’d been saying, ‘Oh, don’t give The Half-Life to anyone else, but I have no idea how I could ever make that movie.’ The revelation of the cow was the thing that opened the door to being able to keep all the themes and characters from the novel, and be able to do it in this passage of time that works for my filmmaking.”

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