Well, that didn’t quite go how anyone expected it to. At the start of 2020, the future looked bright – another year packed with cinematic treats from big ol’ blockbusters (Bond! Black Widow! Wonder Woman 1984!) to other highly-anticipated treats (Last Night In Soho! In The Heights! Candyman!) But in March, the world turned upside down, lockdown began, and cinemas shuttered for months on end.
There’s no getting around it – 2020 has been a tough, tough year for so many people, in so many ways. But despite everything, despite the film venue closures, despite the lack of communal viewing experiences, a slew of incredible films still managed to make their way into the world over the last 12 months. Growing through the cracks, flourishing in their own way, movies have been as green and verdant and resilient as ever. Some helped us get through lockdown, others shone a spotlight on injustice in the world, many delivered pure spills and thrills, or scared our socks clean off.
The complete shake-up of the cinematic landscape brought on by the pandemic inevitably makes for a very different end-of-year list. But as you look through Empire’s best movies of 2020 – as compiled from top ten rankings submitted by members of the entire Empire family – you’ll still see a selection of must-watch movies that kept us engaged and entertained as the year went on. New voices made a major splash. Familiar faces delivered astonishing fresh work. An array of diverse creators spoke loud and clear.
As it turns out, 2020 wasn’t a total disaster after all – and here, in film form, is the proof.
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Here's a film that could truly only have been made in 2020. For most movies, the Coronavirus pandemic halted production – but for Host, it made it possible. Writer-director Rob Savage, and co-writers Jed Shepherd and Gemma Hurley, cooked up an ingenious lockdown horror presented as one terrifying Zoom call – and who can say that they didn't have one of those this year? Host's simple online-séance-goes-awry premise delivers more than its fair share of supremely inventive jolts, tailor-made to Zoom's video-call features, right down to its brilliant final credits. And for all its serious spooks it's laugh-packed too, with pitch-perfect performances from an utterly believable ensemble cast. The inevitable prospect of 'pandemic horror' wasn't exactly enticing – but Host made it essential, offering up one of the most complete and satisfying filmic experiences of the year in a runtime under an hour. We rate the quality of this call very, very highly.Read the Empire review
At different points of the year, for very different reasons, Spike Lee's latest joint cut deep. Part war movie, part adventure-thriller about four African-American soldiers – played by Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and standout Delroy Lindo – reuniting in present-day Vietnam, Lee's film spoke to the intersection of American racism and imperialism in the Vietnam War. Released in the weeks after the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests that were sparked across the world, it was clear that Lee's voice remains as vital and righteous as it ever has been. And then, in late summer, Chadwick Boseman suddenly passed away, bringing a whole new layer of heartbreak to the film – the heavenly imagery of Boseman's fallen leader Stormin' Norman gaining a fresh tragic resonance. Switching tones and registers with skill and ease, Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee through and through – and boasts a stunning monologue from Lindo that ranks among the year's most unforgettable scenes.Read the Empire review
Released just before the pandemic ramped up, Pixar's adventure fell prey to cinema closures – but turned out to be the ideal film for lockdown, with its fantastical escapism, gags galore, and themes celebrating the life-affirming bonds of family. Director Dan Scanlon drew from intensely personal details of his own upbringing and the father he never got to know, channelling it into the story of elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (a charming Tom Holland and Chris Pratt) as they embark on a magical quest to meet their deceased dad for one day only. In true Pixar style, it's incredibly emotional – with a beautiful final reel that delivers what audiences need rather than what they maybe wanted. But it's also a big, joyous adventure flick, with thrilling setpieces, D&D references aplenty, a surprising elf-mom action hero, and genius sight gags. Onward brought cathartic laughs and tears in a year when people really needed both.Read the Empire review
After the CIA-wetwork-level secrecy, the hype, the endless headlines about its release-date slippages and whether it could save cinema, Christopher Nolan's palindromic pulse-pounder turned out to be, well, just a film. But it was a film that kept us all talking throughout the dog days of summer, the actual 150-minute tale just a launchpad for feverish time-travel debates that made some at Empire turn into Charlie Day jabbing at an evidence board in It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Not all the dialogue was audible. The third act required DIY flowcharts to track. And it's debatable whether it needed to wrap up with a rap whose lyrics include "Last time I did the whippets (yeah)/ Last time I live reverse (yeah, yeah, ooh)". But still, this was an all-caps EVENT MOVIE in a year with very few of them – and a staggeringly smart one too, scenes looking like a Bond flick but sounding like a Mensa convention. Tenet practically demands to be watched again at home over Christmas. This time with subtitles on.Read the Empire review
Casting Tom Hanks as the nicest man in America is a no-brainer. But, rather than rest on its laurels, Marielle Heller's study of the relationship between beloved children's personality Fred Rogers (Hanks) and cynical journo Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) finds more interesting dynamics and flavours. This is partly through Heller's filmmaking, bringing Mister Rogers' worldview to life through charming flights of fancy, and partly through performances; Rhys makes Vogel's journey from cynic to something approaching openness believable and affecting, as Hanks embodies Rogers warmth and intelligence without being afraid to hint at a darker side. The film's standout scene sees Rogers invite Vogler to enjoy a minute's silence, a chance "to remember all the people who loved you into being." This idea is Heller's film in miniature, and confirms her as one of the most exciting talents working today.Read the Empire review
In a move that surprised absolutely no-one, it took Charlie Kaufman to deliver 2020's biggest cinematic headfuck. Although it's based on a novel by Ian Reid, i'm thinking of ending things (no capitals) is 100% Kaufman, a blackly funny, meta meditation on the human condition that is more head-scratching than a symposium of fleas. It begins like a twisted version of Meet The Parents as a young woman (Jessie Buckley) and her beau Jake (Jesse Plemons) drive to a farmyard to meet his folks (David Thewlis, Toni Collette, both terrific). Then it enters its own zone of madness involving euthanised farm animals, the recurring image of a school janitor, a faux Robert Zemeckis film, a ghost pig, modern dance and a naked man bawling in the back of a truck. It's a bleak film about the impossibility of hope and the fragility of life, but it finds its soul and centre in Buckley, who gives Kaufman's cerebral ideas vulnerability and emotion. The year's boldest flick from the platform (Netflix) that also brought you Hubie Halloween.Read the Empire review
Is it a film or not? Either way, it's one of the most outstanding and defining pieces of popular culture of the last decade, Lin-Manuel Miranda turning dry American history into a dazzlingly entertaining tale of bitter personal rivalry, revolutionary war, and the power of words. The songs, inspired by decades of hip-hop, are beginning-to-end sensational – but the real treat of the Disney+ version, filmed with the original Broadway cast in 2016, is getting up-close and personal to its knock-out performances. It's a vantage point that might ordinarily cost you hundreds of dollars. You can see the fire in Leslie Odom Jr.'s eyes as he sings 'Wait For It', feel Phillipa Soo's utter heartbreak in 'Burn', and – yes – almost feel the spray of Jonathan Groff's liberal saliva in the King George numbers. Dropped on the streaming service right in the middle of lockdown, Hamilton was vital escapism – and completely democratised a theatrical experience that everyone should seek out.Read the Empire review
Much was made of the sheer technical achievement of Sam Mendes' World War I movie, presented as one extended take through the Boschian hellscape of the frontlines. And it is an astonishing feat – seamlessly stitched together, Roger Deakins' camerawork fluidly taking in every assault and eerie landscape. But 1917 is an emotional, visceral experience too, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman putting in excellent, empathetic performances as the soldiers dispatched across No Man's Land to stop thousands of British soldiers walking into a devastating ambush. A frequently harrowing, heart-stoppingly tense cinematic odyssey – and filmmaking at its most immersive.Read the Empire review
Of all the films released in 2020, Queen & Slim was perhaps the 2020-est. Following two young African Americans who meet on a Tinder date and get plunged into a nightmare when a cop car pulls them over, Melina Matsoukas' film tackled police brutality and mass protest in scenes that echoed out in real life as the year progressed. But despite its bleak subject matter and the righteous anger fuelling it, Queen & Slim again and again finds beauty amidst the horror which features too much in the Black experience, whether it's the stunning visuals captured by cinematographer Tat Radcliffe, or the tender romance that unfurls between Jodie Turner-Smith's Queen and Daniel Kaluuya's Slim – a pair who, on their first date, wish they'd swiped left on each other. A road movie with an important destination, it gets there in style.Read the Empire review
Right from its opening minutes, the sense of time and place in the first of Steve McQueen's Small Axe films is utterly transportive. The filmmaker faithfully recreates 1970s Notting Hill to shine a light on Frank Crichlow and the 'Mangrove Nine' – a true story of police brutality, institutionalised racism, and a Black community fighting for the right to live without the constant threat of unprovoked attack, right in the heart of London. In a year where so much focus was on racial inequality in America, it felt vital to see a story make clear that this is also very much a British issue. But for all that the police attack sequences feel visceral and distressing, McQueen's camera doesn't linger on the brutality, and he creates space to depict the joy and interior life of the neighbourhood's West Indian residents. Filled with powerful imagery of protests, and depicting a court case which saw Black British people defend themselves in their own voices, Mangrove is captivating and essential.Read the Empire review
'Taika Waititi is making his movie again' may one day become a stick with which to beat the Kiwi writer-director, but not as long as he continues to make movies as original and invigorating as Jojo Rabbit. A spiritual successor to Boy and Hunt For The Wilderpeople, it's another film about a lost boy and the role models he chooses to help him chart a path into adulthood. As you'd expect with Taika, there are imaginary friends, meticulously framed images, and montages set to pop music. And… Nazis? Yes, because Jojo, living in Germany near the end of World War II, has unquestioningly swallowed Nazi propaganda, and his imaginary friend is a rancid, hate-spewing version of Hitler (played by Waititi himself). Waititi unwaveringly walks a tonal tightrope that moves swiftly from broad comedy to an unflinching embrace of the consequences of the war – and all with huge heaps of the heart that his films have had since day one, as young Jojo slowly bonds with the Jewish teenager (Thomasin McKenzie) his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in the walls of their home. Long may Taika continue making his movie.Read the Empire review
In 1941, RKO gave Orson Welles an effective blank cheque to make Citizen Kane. In 2020, the cheque might not be as blank, but it's clear Netflix (or as they're here temporarily retitled, 'Netflix International Studios') have given David Fincher the carte blanche he deserves to make precisely the film he wanted to make: a typically meticulous monochrome masterpiece. The personal parallels are everywhere: in telling the story of a genius creative obsessed by a Hollywood he doesn't quite fit into, it may be the closest to a Fincher autobiography we'll ever get — given added personal dimension by the script, written by Fincher Sr. But it's also a sad portrait of a self-destructive artist, making his best work at the expense of almost everything. The deep dives into the intricacies of Old Hollywood will be too specific for some, but for Golden Age film nerds, it's absolute heaven.Read the Empire review
Subtext swirls and swells in Robert Eggers' head-tripping psychological horror. Both adorned with outrageous facial hair, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are the 'wickies' – aka lighthouse keepers – stranded together on a rain-lashed rock, slowly losing their grip on sanity and displaying an obsession with the pulsating lamp at the top of the tower. Equal parts Lovecraftian and Freudian, Eggers' film is a freaky and fascinating blend of folktale, sea myth, homoeroticism, and psycho-thriller, full of unforgettable imagery and deeply unsettling sound design. And Pattinson and Dafoe give raw, wild-eyed performances, hemmed into the frame by a near-square aspect ratio that lends the whole thing the feel of an unholy long-lost film reel, freshly dredged up from the ocean depths.Read the Empire review
There's not much plot to speak of in Lovers Rock, which follows Martha (Amarah Jae St. Aubyn, in a sensational debut) as she sneaks out of her family home to go to a party in 1980s West London. But what Steve McQueen's second – and arguably best – Small Axe entry lacks in narrative, it makes up for with its loving exploration of Black British culture. That includes close-ups of women preparing goat curry stew that you can almost smell through the screen, and evocative dance sequences that make you long for the pre-pandemic parties of old. The most joyous moment of the film – and perhaps 2020 – comes during the instantly iconic 'Silly Games' sequence, in which everyone on the dancefloor sings Janet Kay's 1979 hit acapella for four euphoric minutes. That McQueen still finds the time in this 68 minute film to gently yet effectively remind us of the harsh world that exists outside this bubble of Black bliss is a sign of a director at the top of his game. Read the Empire review
Rising from the ashes of the Dark Universe, the iconic Universal Monster got a thrilling reinvention from Leigh Whannell. His take centred not on the Invisible Man himself, but on his victim – Elisabeth Moss' Cecilia, who, in a breathlessly tense opening sequence, escapes from her abusive relationship with optics engineer Adrian Griffin. Despite appearances that Griffin has committed suicide, Cecilia is convinced he's still haunting her. Whannell imbues shots of empty spaces with a sense of utter dread (could Adrian really be lurking there?), that combined with Moss' incredible wild-eyed performance makes the fantastical set-up feel completely real and grounded. The result is a deeply effective meditation on gaslighting and trauma, but one that still absolutely works as a tense and terrifying horror-thriller – with one of the most downright shocking moments of 2020.Read the Empire review
It's hard to remember the last time a British horror debut was this finely calibrated. Rose Glass's first film is an instant classic, taking the genre's usual devil-worshipping tropes and flipping them on their head. In Morfydd Clark's Maud – a traumatised nurse who communicates with 'God', determined to save the soul of the hedonistic terminal cancer patient she's caring for – we get a new kind of holy terror, a character who's equal parts pitiful and powerful, her fearsome fervour fuelling her increasingly dangerous detachment. Like its central character, the film around her is brittle and jagged but carefully controlled, with a tone that shifts seamlessly between ghoulish dark humour, psychosexual imagery and bloody frights. A searing, visionary work, centred on an incredible star-making turn. Praise the Maud.Read the Empire review
This chaotic and loving ode to friendship is the best British teen movie in years. Set in East London, the film follows Rocks (Bukky Bakray), an aspiring makeup artist who is abandoned by her mother and forced to care for her younger brother Emmanuelle (D'angelou Osei Kissiedu, the undisputed star of 2020). At her side, however, are a group of fiercely loyal friends who try their best to keep Rocks' feet on the ground. Director Sarah Gavron and screenwriters Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson workshopped the film extensively with their predominantly street cast ensemble. The result is a collaborative celebration of female spirit and resilience that's never romanticised but always raw, tender and blissfully funny. The year has done its best to stifle the connections between friends as a wave of isolation has swept across the world. Rocks reminds us that we need these connections more than ever.Read the Empire review
The Safdie Brothers took their ability to create pure cinematic anxiety to new heights with a thriller that plays more like a sustained panic attack. Adam Sandler puts in a career-best performance as reckless diamond dealer Howard Ratner, who owes money all around town – and while a rare Ethiopian black opal looks set to improve his fortunes, he can't help but make yet more deeply dangerous decisions. Between Sandler's jittery performance (you'll root for him, while cursing every single terrible choice he makes), the hectic soundscape of overlapping chatter, and a wobbly Jenga tower of dodgy deals that threaten to collapse at any second, it's a pulse-pounding adrenaline ride without a single action set piece.Read the Empire review
On an isolated island in 18th Century Brittany, artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned by a noblewoman (Valeria Golino) to paint a picture of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) as a means of attracting wealthy suitors. The hitch? Heloise refuses to have her likeness painted, so Marianne has to pull off the portrait covertly. Out of this high concept, writer-director Celine Sciamma has created a masterpiece – a thrilling, intoxicating love story that has no truck with cliché or sentiment or male worldviews (this is a film where men are relegated to the background). Anchored by two terrific central performances, few films have so economically captured feelings of longing and love without diluting an ounce of passion. The filmmaking is impeccable – take a bow, DP Claire Mathon, for some of this year's most lucid imagery – all in service of a film about a connection so intense it burns a hole in the screen.Read the Empire review
Bong Joon Ho has been concocting heady genre fusions for years – and Parasite found the Korean auteur at his most intoxicating. Is it a thriller? Or a dark comedy? Or a tragedy? Or a satire? All of the above, and more. The intertwined stories of the hardscrabble Kim family and the wealth-dripping Parks is deeply layered, richly thematic – and, most of all, breathlessly exciting, twisting and turning in such unexpected ways that you're never quite sure what comes next. Bathed in Hitchcockian suspense, nodding to decades of Asian horror movies, peppered with laugh-out-loud lines, it's a supremely entertaining ride, flawlessly executed by Director Bong with precise craft and a knockout ensemble cast. Before 2020 went off the rails, it began with a miracle: for once, Best Picture really did go to the best picture.Read the Empire review
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