The List's Best Films of 2020: 5–1
- Emma Simmonds
- 17 December 2020
The final part of our rundown of our movie highlights of the year
Picking up where our last list left off, we present our top five: the highlights of a year in which filmmakers provided more food for thought than dazzling distractions. Whether by choice or necessity, some of these will have been seen on the small screen this year, but all are, in their own ways, emphatically cinematic.
It's always such a thrill when an exciting new voice storms onto the filmmaking scene. First-time writer-director Radha Blank (a writer and producer on TV show She's Gotta Have It) explores ageism, cultural authenticity and assumptions in a New York-set story about a struggling Black playwright who turns to rap. It's as rich with insight and powerful as it is loose and lairy. That Blank has announced herself at an age where women are often written off, and made much of her film about the injustice of that, is impressive indeed.
In one of the performances of his career, Gary Oldman resurrects troubled screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, playing him as an incorrigible but loveable wit, who casts his mind back over his sometimes-disappointing career as he bashes out his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, with occasional interruptions from its wunderkind director Orson Welles (Tom Burke). David Fincher's authentic, monochromic love letter to Hollywood's Golden Age is lent further poignancy by the contribution of his late father, Jack, who penned the sparkling screenplay years before his death in 2003. For his son to bring it to screen so sensationally is a hell of a thing.
Wowing the Cannes Film Festival back in May 2019, where we reviewed it, but not released in the UK until early this year, Parasite would of course go on to make history as the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture Oscar, at the 2020 ceremony. Boasting a richly entertaining plot, it's the seventh film from the great South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, The Host, Memories of Murder), satirising societal inequality through its study of two families – one rich, one poor – who are brought together by a very cunning scheme.
The launchpad for Steve McQueen's landmark anthology series, Small Axe, takes the second spot here but its inclusion is a nod to the brilliance of all five films, which have just wrapped up their run on BBC One and are available to watch via iPlayer. With actors of the calibre of Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, John Boyega, Micheal Ward, Naomi Ackie and Sharlene Whyte on top form and lots of warmth and humour in amongst the righteous anger, the Black British experience has rarely been so diversely and passionately portrayed.
Topping our list is another film we first caught at Cannes 2019. Director Céline Sciamma's follow-up to the similarly superb Girlhood takes a novel approach to the restrictions of the 18th century. This heart-stoppingly beautiful, achingly romantic and strikingly eccentric film finds a female painter (Noémie Merlant) employed to create a portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel), without the woman in question being aware. Instead, she befriends and later falls for her and the all-female bubble they exist in for a time feels very blissful. Portrait of a Lady on Fire doesn't just loosen the corset-like conventions of the period drama, it hurls them far out to sea.