The exact opposite of 2019 in almost everyway, 2020 was not only the worst year in probably ever but it also had no fucking movies. You lived through the year, so there’s no point in me recapping the myriad of reasons why it sucked, but I will mention one thing that sucked about it: the absolute dirge of films. One of the casualties of the coronavirus was the accelerated death of cinemas. Studios pulled their major releases and the theaters that did stay open chose to play older films instead of indies.
So like the hungry dogs we were, we feasted on whatever bones they decided to throw on streaming. Because of this, films were spread across every streaming service, which meant that if you didn’t have all of them (which I don’t) you were shit out of luck. The was also so many great films that only played festivals I couldn’t attend (Minari and Nomadland), so many great films I didn’t get around to watching (Soul, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), so many I heard about too late for me to have seen before making this list.
Unfortunately, this is not a comprehensive list of the best films released this year. For one thing, it doesn’t include any documentaries and like I said, it doesn’t include every film I wanted to see this year. This is however, a ranking of my personal favorite films released this year. It is purely subjective. I’ve ordered them from the absolute worst thing I saw to my favorite film of the year. This is my top 5 favorite films of 2020 (plus 43 honorable mentions).
(This article is part of our Best of 2020 series.)
I’ve dunked on Ti West and his agonizingly slow films many times in the past. For about ten years now, he’s been my go to example for how not to make a slow burn horror. But as much as I love shitting on him, even I can’t deny the fact that his films all have a distinct voice and style. I may not like his style but he at least has one. He also managed to get some undeniably great performances in The Innkeepers and The Sacrament, so while I do love shitting on him (I can’t stress this enough, I really love shitting on Ti West), I can’t in good conscience call him a bad director.
A boring one yes, but he’s not bad. Amulet is what it would be like if Hereditary was directed by an even worse version of Ti West. If you somehow squeezed West to the point where all that remained was the pulp, you’d be left with about three shot glasses worth of talent, which is about five more than this film has. It’s slow, it’s meandering, it’s never scary and when it does finally become interesting, it’s far too little, too late. The only way this story could work, is if it was a twenty minute short and even that might be too long. It’s a total nothing of a film and I can’t wait to forget about it in a couple of days.
Designed to look like an old VHS tape that contains TV footage from non-existent 80s programs, VHYes is an Adult Swim inspired anthology made up of bizarre segments. There’s a creepy Bob Ross-esque painter who likes to watch you sleep, an infomercial trying to sell you little drug baggies, a comedic skit involving a magician being mistaken for a ghost and done other commercials and dumbass TV shows. The concept is great but unlike other films that have already done it, it never knows what kind of film it wants to be.
The Kentucky Fried movie is a wacky comedy, with every segment being either funny, crazy or both. On the other hand, WNUF Halloween Special plays it completely straight, with every aspect of the film feeling as authentic as possible. VHYes wants to be some sort of character drama, with realistic characters and a sincere story but it continuously undermines that sincerity with segments which are clearly not meant to be taken seriously. The film’s tone is wildly inconsistent. Either tell a dramatic story with authentic looking TV segments or ditch the human element altogether and just be a silly parody. VHYes more like VHNo.
46. Vampires vs The Bronx
What hath Stranger Things wrought? A heavily sanitized horror film aimed at preteens that’s so afraid of offending or scaring anyone that it comes off as more of a backdoor pilot for a YouTube show than an actual movie. That episode of Family Matters involving the Urkel puppet has more spooks and that’s a show aimed at children. I truly don’t understand why this was made. I mean, I get that it’s dealing gentrification but that message is buried under about two tons of meta “comedy”, Dracula references, pointless subplots, annoying characters and poorly executed “horror”. So, if the message wasn’t going to be obvious to the film’s target audience and if it wasn’t going to even do the bare minimum to qualify as either a horror, comedy or both, why does this thing exist? I don’t understand who this is for or why anyone would like it.
45. The Hunt
While I admire the writers attempt to do something new within the Most Dangerous Game sub-genre (where people are hunted for sport), I can’t in good conscience award points for laziness. It’s shocking that it’s taken this long for one of these films to actually try and come up with a reason as to why a group of people would be hunted that doesn’t involve the rich vs the poor, and again, I admire the attempt but that doesn’t mean it’s saying anything new or original. It’s stock political caricatures vs exaggerated woke cliches the movie. While it does try and attack both sides of the fence, it does so in the most obnoxiously and lazy way possible. It stops being a satire when everything is screamingly literal—it just becomes a soundboard of cliches. It’s the type of movie that, every five minutes or so, nudges you in the side and yells “do you get it? Do you??” Yes movie, I get it. Stop fucking nudging me.
44. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Although she debuted on the critically acclaimed Batman cartoon from the 90s, Harley Quinn wouldn’t join the official DC comics continuity until 1999. She proved such a hit amongst fans, that she was pushed into more and more Batman stories until she got a comic of her own. Few comic book characters have become as beloved as quickly as she has. She’s become as recognizable and as popular as any other superhero even though she’s technically barely old enough to legally drink.
Which meant that it was only a matter of time before she got her own movie and while Birds of Prey is certainly a step up from her previous cinematic outing (the unwatchable Suicide Squad), it’s still pretty dire. Outside of McGregor and Robbie, every character in this is either one-note or annoying, the action is badly choreographed and uninspired, the humor is cringe-inducing (this film really wants to be DC’s Deadpool) and it wastes its R rating. I cannot for the life of me think of a single element of this film that justified it’s rating. There’s almost no blood or swearing (from what I remember) and there’s definitely no nudity. I truly don’t understand why it was rated R. It also has the laziest and most pointless end credit scene in the history of end credit scenes. It can’t even tease shit property, that’s how inept it is.
Vin Diesel picks films according to how cool he thinks the premises are but the thing is, his idea of cool hasn’t changed since he was thirteen. X-treme sports and fast cars and alien convicts and Dungeons and Dragons (The Last Witch Hunter was based on a campaign he created in D&D. Seriously.) and badass super soldiers are all cool things to Diesel, so he makes films about those things. Or alternatively, he is a thirteen year old boy who underwent some sort of magical age progression ala Big and is now living the most incredible movie career of any prepubescent ever. Either way, Diesel makes films for the coolest teenagers ever, so if you’re not a cool fucking teen, get the fuck outta here.
42. Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula
Leapfrogging past Dawn and Day and landing at Land, Peninsula is such a drop in quality from its predecessor, it’s as if Romero followed up Night of the Living Dead with its markedly inferior third sequel. Everything that made the first film beloved, is stripped away in favor of obnoxiously loud action. The characters are bland and forgettable, the plot feels cobbled together from rejected Resident Evil and World War Z sequel scripts and worst of all, the emotional core is completely removed. Well, actually that’s not entirely true.
I mean, there’s an attempt at some emotion but every time the film tries to make you feel something, it just comes off as hollow and manipulative. There’s at least five instances where the film shamelessly goes after your heart strings and each instance feels desperate and almost comical. It’s trying so hard to recreate the tear-jerker ending of the first film and it’s just sad. The only good thing about this film is that it made me appreciate how hard it is to make a good zombie movie because if the director of one of the best can’t even do it twice, you know that shit must be difficult.
41. Come To Daddy
A man (Elijah Wood) in his thirties travels to a remote cabin to reconnect with his estranged father. If I said this film “tries too hard”, odds are, you’d know exactly what I’m talking about but if I was to try and put into words what that meant exactly, I’d have a very hard time properly articulating it. It’s a competently made film and everyone in it gives solid performances (especially Michael Smiley) but the dialogue and off-kilter tone turn what could’ve been a fun Coen Bros type crime film, into a bad imitation of a Shane Black film. Everyone talks like they’re in a witty crime film and behaves accordingly. Nobody feels real and every situation feels inauthentic and clichéd. It tries so hard to throw as many weird revelations and bizarre scenarios at the viewer as possible but it fails at even that because it’s never that weird and it’s nowhere near as crazy as it thinks it is. Not even Elijah Wood’s haircut can save it and that’s saying a lot because that motherfucking thing is putting in work.
40. The Mortuary Collection
I’m a sucker for a good horror anthology. Even though the sub-genre is made up almost entirely of trash, I still watch them in the hopes that I find that gem. The Mortuary Collection is not that gem. Consisting of four segments and a wrap around, the film’s crowning achievement is its ability to tie all the stories together without it feeling like a series of disconnected shorts. Borrowing the structure of Tales From the Hood (a creepy mortician tells some supernatural tales of the macabre) but not outright stealing it, the film nails its wrap around story but falters everywhere else.
Every time Clancy Brown is on screen, the film works and every time he’s not, it’s hit or miss. The first segment is a quick tale about a woman and a monster living in a medicine cabinet, the second is about the importance of safe sex, the third involves a man trying to get rid of his invalid wife and the fourth and last story is about a babysitter having to fight a babysitter killer. None of them are particularly good but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re bad either. All of them are middle of the road in terms of scares and entertainment value. It’s an entertaining enough anthology that works as a calling card for the director but not much else.
Released mere months after the sexy vampire thriller Bliss, Joe Begas’ follow up is an Assault on Precinct 13-inspired siege thriller about a group of old Vietnam vets who have to survive an onslaught of drugged up mutant punks. It’s not exactly a good movie but it’s good in that midnight movie kinda way. The selling point, and the thing that separates it from every other siege film, is its cast. Check out this lineup: Stephen Lang, William Sadler, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt, Martin Kove, and Fred Williamson. That alone should put your ass in a seat but that’s not all it has going for it. It’s also incredibly violent. Like over the top gruesome, the kind of violence you only saw in notorious horror films of the late ’70s and early to mid ’80s. If Death Wish 3 is one of your favorite action movies, you will probably love VFW.
38. My Spy
A hardened CIA operative finds himself at the mercy of a precocious 9-year-old girl, having been sent undercover to surveil her family. At a certain point in every action stars career, they are required by Hollywood law to make at least one film for children. A lot of them involve a covert ops specialist having to protect a child like a babysitter and/or act like a tough personal bodyguard that has to do what they say because of some plot contrivance. None of them are good and My Spy is no exception. It’s exactly like The Pacifier or The Spy Next Door or Suburban Commando (I’m pretty sure Hulk was an alien in that but who gives a shit) or any other film I’ve forgotten about or any other film that doesn’t exactly fit the criteria but still involve an action star and a kid(s). Now, while this isn’t good, it’s at least watchable. Bautista is fun, the lil girl is likable and the jokes, while not funny, aren’t cringe-worthy, so if you’re forced to watch it, you most likely won’t want to eat a bullet.
37. Hillbilly Elegy
Around the half way point, I completely stopped paying attention to anything that was happening in this film and was just watching to see the big Oscar moment that would play during the “and the nominee for best actress is” montage and to my surprise, it never came. Neither Close or Adams has that huge tear jerker moment or show stopping monologue that old people and academy voters love, which is shocking considering how calculated this film is at getting those two actresses an Oscar. It’s an Oscar bait movie that forgets the bait. Don’t get me wrong, both actresses are very good in the film but when it’s in service to something so calculated, both come off as hollow and insincere.
And since the material, which again, feels designed to win them an Oscar, falls short at that goal, there really isn’t much to recommend outside of that. The film is based on a best selling memoir about a college student who has to go back to his home town to deal with his self destructive mother and on his way there, we’re treated to flashback after flashback of his shitty mother being shitty and his sassy grandma being sassy. Having not read the novel, I can only imagine how much better that melodrama plays on the page because on screen, it feels like a Lifetime movie with a budget.
36. Uncle Peckerhead
One of the first things they teach you in any writing class, is to understand the difference between premise and plot. It’s very simple to tell the two apart, one is what the story is and the other is what the story is about. Or, it would be if every story had both. Uncle Peckerhead is an example of a premise in search of a plot. Three punks find out that their newly acquired roadie is a cannibalistic monster. It’s a fun premise but what’s the film actually about? Sadly, nothing. The story begins and ends at that elevator pitch.
It almost looks like it’s going to do something interesting with that set up on account of the fact that he can control his murderous impulses and that 75% of the band seem pretty cool with the fact that he kills people but the film really doesn’t go anywhere.
There’s no tension because there’s no escalation or actual threat, there’s no scares because his attacks are always provoked and there’s really no build up to anything. They’re cool with him until they’re not and then they’re afraid of him and then the film sort of runs out of steam and ends. This would’ve worked far better as a 20 minute short.
35. Open 24 Hours
Newly released from prison and in desperate need of employment, Mary (Vanessa Grasse) decides to work at a 24 hour gas station and all seems well until her past trauma starts bleeding into her life to such a degree, that the line between reality and fantasy become indistinguishable. Suffering from extreme PTSD and audio and visual hallucinations due to her ex being a notorious serial killer who made her watch his killings, Mary starts hearing and seeing him everywhere she goes. Is she going crazy or is he back and looking for revenge? A solid directorial debut, Open 24 Hours is a brutal and slightly nihilistic slasher that assaults the viewer with carnage and visceral action. It’s not as violent as say Haute Tension (a film this film openly homages) but once the blood starts following, it doesn’t stop. A great watch for gorehounds but all others, beware.
34. Come Play
Based on the short film of the same name, Come Play is a horror film aimed at younger viewers about an autistic boy who accidentally releases a tall gangly creature into existence through an app on his iPad. Since I moderately liked this film and thought it was good enough to not completely hate (I have a soft spot for horror films made for children), I’m going to be a tad kinder to it than it deserves.
There’s some legitimately well crafted spooks (one involves a laser measuring device and another utilizes a face filter app to great effect) and the monster is kinda cool looking but it’s far too derivative to recommend to anyone over the age of twelve. It’s a near carbon copy of The Babadook but stripped of the tension and ambiance that made that film great. It’s exactly what you’d think a Spielberg produced remake would look like. Which is all you need to know to decide whether or not it’s for you.
33. Project Power
Since they’re such a hot commodity right now, with studios announcing a new movie and/or TV show on a near weekly basis, comic book movies have become an omnipresence in all of our lives. Superheroes have become almost impossible to avoid. Because the market is completely saturated, it takes something truly special to stand out from the crowd. And if it’s not based on an existing property, it had better be unique and/or original to not feel derivative.
Project Power is none of these things. Created solely with the intent to cash in on the comic book craze, Project Power is a soulless cash grab that doesn’t have an original bone in its body. A horrible amalgamation of X Men, Push and Powers, the film has a ton of ideas but had no idea how to pull them all together. The premise is almost interesting, the powers are almost entertaining to watch and the characters are almost characters. The only positive about the film is Dominique Fishback’s performance. She’s going to be a star and the film doesn’t deserve a performance as good as hers.
32. After Midnight
After Midnight would make a terrific companion piece with the film Spring. Unlike that film, which is about a man falling in love with a woman who’s also a monster, this film is about a man who has to deal with a monster that tries to kill him every night, that may or may not be his ex. Like most indie horror films, this is more of a slow burn character study with very little spooks and a lot of on the nose metaphors (the monster is heartbreak! The monster is the baggage of the past that never stops haunting you! The monster is regret!) but since the actors are great (Jeremy Gardener is slowly becoming my favorite lo-fi actor and Henry Zebrowski needs a special shout out for stealing every scene he’s in), I was into it. I will most likely forget about it in a month but right now, I’m digging it.
31. The Invisible Man
Directors have rebooted and reimagined the Universal monsters for about thirty years now and while this one is easily the best of the lot (well, not including the 1999 The Mummy because that shit is amazing), it’s still disappointingly bad. The premise is fantastic and the lead performance is pretty great but the film is bogged down by stupidity, repetitive scenes and by the fact that you know going in, that there will be no jump scares because the bad guy is invisible.
Slight spoilers below
She has photographic evidence that she’s not crazy but she never mentions it. There’s a bloody finger print on the bottle of pills she’s supposedly taking which are clearly her exes, which would prove he planted them but that’s never mentioned. How he faked his own suicide is never explained. Her dog is still at her exes, which is supposed to be abandoned, at yet that’s never brought up as to how he’s alive or who’s feeding him. How he has super strength is never explained or why she never tries to tackle him when he’s clearly in the same room with her or why she’s not filming anything that happens.
This film is so stupid, it hurts my goddamn brain.
30. Sonic the Hedgehog
An extremely fast alien hedgehog and a local police officer must team up to take on an evil scientist. I suspect even the most die hard Sonic fans wouldn’t give this more than a mild recommendation. And that’s if they’re being extremely kind. It’s one of those films who’s quality depends on the mood in which you saw it. You will either come out the other side happy that they got it right, unenthusiastically shrugging or hating it immensely. Which I guess describes any film but like I said, it’s not the films quality that is the determining factor on whether or not you like it, it’s how generous you feel like being after it’s over that will.
If you can overlook a ton of cliches and overused tropes and mildly annoying jokes and if you’re a fan of Jim Carrey schtick, you might like it. But if you hate all of those things and don’t care about Sonic and you don’t care if there’s ever a good video game movie, this might be an endurance test. I’m right in the middle. It’s fine. Sonic ran fast, Carrey was Carrey and there’s a ton of dumb jokes. I got exactly the experience I thought I would.
29. Koko-Di Koko-Da
After the death of their child, a grieving couple decide to go on a camping trip to try and reconnect but are soon interrupted by a trio of carnival-like villains who decide to trap them in a time loop of terror. A confounding tale of profound weirdness, Koko-di Koko-da is like a seven layer bean dip with half the layers made up of question marks and shrugs. The subtext is obvious (grief is a never-ending cycle) but everything else is purposefully obtuse. If you like piecing together the ambiguous, this is definitely the film for you because it makes you do all the work. I don’t mind that approach normally but that’s when I feel like the director knows what the final picture is before he asks me to piece together the puzzle but here, I don’t think there is a picture at all. It’s all puzzle. I also don’t think it goes as far in the violence as it should have. I’m not asking for it to be a torture porn but it needed a bit more bite.
After seeing the first trailer, I was worried that this was going to be the point in which Pixar finally transitions into DreamWorks type films due to the celebrity voices being the focal point of the marketing (never-mind the fact that it just didn’t look good) and while I was ultimately proven correct in my assumptions, it still maintains enough of that Pixar magic that it succeeds for the most part. The relationship between the brothers is easily the best part of the film. The other shit — the fantasy setting, the mother subplot, the quest itself — are all inconsequential.
As long as they didn’t mess with that core mechanic, this could’ve been set anywhere and been about anything and it still would’ve worked. It’s not like they took full advantage of the universe they created anyways. For all its faults, I’d still rather take this over a DreamWorks or Illumination film any day of the week. That’s how strong Pixar is, even when they phone it in, they’re still better than everyone else in the biz.
27. Attack of the Demons
As far as I know, Eric Power is the only animator making full length films with paper cut out animation. Think the first couple episodes of South Park but more fluid and that’s his films. It’s an eye catching aesthetic that separates it from everything else out there but visuals can only get you so far. Unfortunately, this is one of the worst written films of the year or at the very least, the worst performed. The line delivery in this is almost unbearable. The actors are a hair better than an virtual assistant AI like a Siri or an Alexa. In fact, I’m confident you could ask them to find you five community college actors to redo every line for free and they’d be better. It’s atrocious. But if you can push that aside and if you have a high tolerance for clichés and good enough action, there is a moderate amount of fun to be had with this one. Or you could check out his previous film Path of Blood instead. There’s no dialogue, so there’s nothing to cringe at. Which based on this film, should be the case with every film going forward.
26. An American Pickle
While nowhere near as good as either, An American Pickle is Seth Rogen’s Uncut Gems or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s the film that shows that Rogen can act and that he’s more than just “that stoner with the laugh.” He was great in films before, like Observe and Report and Steve Jobs but hardly anyone remembers the former and since he wasn’t nominated for the latter (which he should’ve been), everyone forgets he was even in it but I think this will be the one that people will point to as the turning point in his career. The film as a whole is a mess. There are far too many ideas shoved into what is essentially a double fish out of water story but his duo role as a man in the present and a man one hundred years from the past is easily the highlight. It’s not a Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove caliber performance but it’s still convincing enough that I buy both characters as two different people, not just Rogen and Rogen with a funny voice. This is the kind of work I hope he does more of in the future, I just hope he gets tighter scripts to work with.
25. Love and Monsters
To call this Zombieland but with monsters is a bit reductive because while they are extremely similar, this does do enough things differently that it would be unfair to call it a straight up knock off. The main character does feel very Eisenberg-esque and Michael Rooker’s character does have shades of Woody Harrelson but that’s about it. This doesn’t include any obnoxious comedy, there’s no celebrity cameo and the third act is radically different. It’s a simple road trip movie that just happens to have a ton of monsters, a ton of heart and one of celluloid’s greatest pooches.
24. Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
This is a film that dares you to find two comparative things to merge to try and succinctly describe it. I don’t think there’s a single high concept sci-fi film and insane piece of oddball cinema you can combine to equal this film. Inception by way of the Beastie Boys? World on a Wire crossed with Adult Swim? Philip K. Dick meets a bag of edibles and acid? The plot is similar to about a million other stories but the execution is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The film is about two secret agents who use a VR simulation to take down the Soviet Union, which is easier said then done.
While inside the simulation, the agents wear paper cut out masks of celebrities (one is Robert Redford and the other is Richard Pryor) and every action is stutter stop like stop motion animation. The visuals outside of the simulation are more conventional but are still hyper stylized. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the actors themselves are offbeat and strange. Every inch of this film is designed to make you question your sanity. Nothing makes sense and the longer it goes on, the crazier it gets. It’s clearly aiming to be a meme or cult classic and while I do think it’s trying too hard to be a new WTF staple, it does get points for going after that title harder than anything else released within the last five years. I’m not even sure I liked it but I know I’ll never forget it.
The late 80’s were the best and worst time for fans of aquatic horror. Within a span of a year and a half, five undersea monster films were released. Leviathan, DeepStar Six, Lords of the Deep, the Rift and for the purposes of my point, The Abyss. It was a veritable smorgasbord of mutated crustaceans and biological monstrosities but that wonderful buffet came at a terrible price. Hollywood, never wanting something this amazing to happen again, collectively decided to ban aquatic horror for thirty years.
That’s the only logical explanation as to why Sphere is the only horror-ish film set underwater released between The Rift and this film. Which is a goddamn travesty due to the fact that the world needs more aquatic horror and more importantly, because Sphere is a fucking awful. After three decades, audiences were finally able to see another film involving a group of people fighting some monster under the sea. Was Underwater worth the wait? No, but it’s still an enjoyable film nevertheless.
A solid creature feature that isn’t afraid to dip its toes in the absurd, Underwater acknowledge its sub-genre predecessors, while also providing some interesting tweaks to the formula. In addition to its brisk pace and unforgettable climax, the films biggest strength is its cast. Kristen Stewart does a great job anchoring the film, while the rest do just enough to make you almost sad when they get eaten. All in all, it’s a great addition to the sub genre and here’s hoping it did well enough to jumpstart a resurgence.
22. Let Them All Talk
Since he’s ping-pong’n between each character and has to juggle a bunch of requests and hold on to a couple of secrets, it feels like the Lucas Hedges character could’ve been played by Woody Allen back in the day. The film never plays up the comedy of his situation, which is fine because this film is clearly not focused on farce but the potential for it is so obvious and crystal clear to me, that I can’t help but wonder if Soderbergh acquired an old Allen script in an estate sale, dusted it off and reconfigured it to work in the present day. To further support my theory, the cast feels like a greatest hits of his repertory players. Streep and Wiest have both appeared in some of his best films and while she never appeared in any of his films, Bergen feels like she should’ve been in at least a handful of them.
Speaking of feelings, the film just feels like one of those films he made that I never got around to seeing. The plot just screams Allen: A celebrated author takes a journey with some old friends to have some fun and heal old wounds. Her nephew comes along to wrangle the ladies and finds himself involved with a young literary agent. that set up couldn’t be anymore Allen if it tried. It doesn’t have the witty dialogue but the acting is just as good and the deliberate pace is extremely reminiscent of his 80s films. As a fan of films where nothing happens but great actors talking to other great actors for 90 minutes, this was like cat nip for me. Your mileage may vary.
Like all children of legends, Brandon Cronenberg was born with the impossible task of somehow existing outside of the shadow of his father. He, like Joe Hill and Duncan Jones, will never not be compared to the work of his father. Hell, he can’t even announce a new movie without media outlets mentioning that he’s the son of David Cronenberg. The only way he can start to pave a way for himself, is by proving he’s got just as distinct a voice. Jones made Moon and Source Code, Hill has a number of great novels but Brandon has yet to make something to rival his father. Antiviral was a fantastic debut and while Possessor shows a real step forward in terms of craft, it’s always a huge step backwards in many other ways. For one thing, I don’t think it’s thesis, if there even is one, is that compelling.
The film takes place in the near future where a hitman (Andrea Riseborough) takes over the mind and body of someone close to the target, in order to perform the perfect executions. But after a botched job, she’s having a difficult time keeping her latest host (Christopher Abbott) under control. That’s a fantastic set up for a great psychological cat and mouse game where both the cat and the mouse are in the same body but that’s not really what happens. The hitman is losing control and the host figures it out and in the last ten minutes, does something about it. Leading up to that, there’s a bunch of uninteresting talky talk, some trippy looking visuals, a borderline excessive amount of violence (which I believe ties into the thesis, which is that video games make us violent or that seeing violence everyday secondhand has made us addicted) and some solid performances from the two leads. He’s clearly got the goods as a director, he just needs to work on that writing because it ain’t up to snuff.
At the height of the Cold War, a Soviet spacecraft crash lands after a mission gone awry, leaving the commander as its only survivor. After a renowned Russian psychologist is brought in to evaluate the commander’s mental state, it becomes clear that something dangerous may have come back to Earth with him. A twist laden thriller that doles out the suspense and monster mayhem in equal measure, Sputnik is a slow burn character piece that’s never scary but is riveting beyond belief. It puts you on the edge of your seat and keeps you there till the final frame. Less like Alien and more akin to something like Spring, this is a mature horror film aimed at adults who care more about character than scares.
If I wanted to be cynical, I could easily tear this film apart. It doesn’t do anything particularly new or interesting and everything it does do, you’ve already seen before. You’ve seen horror movies about creepy old ladies before. You’ve seen seen horror movies about creepy old houses before. You’ve seen horror movies tackle mental illness before. If this film was a magician, it would pull a rabbit out of a hat, saw a lady in half and produce birds seemingly out of thin air. You know these tricks because you’ve seen them a million times before but like the best magicians, there’s always a new way to package an old trick. If you think about it, that’s all a horror director does, they repackage old scares for new audiences.
There’s only so many ways you can have someone leap in front of the camera and say “boo!” Relic doesn’t add any new tricks to the magicians arsenal but what it does do, is tap into the emotional core behind the spooks and it does so marvelously. A daughter, mother and grandmother are haunted by a manifestation of dementia that consumes their family’s home. The film isn’t subtle in its portrayal of Alzheimer’s. That’s the text. The horror stems from it and it’s all consuming. But it’s also uplifting and emotional. This is more than just a fight against a demon, it’s an acceptance of the demon and learning how to live with it. It’s a powerful film that will stab you in the heart after it makes you scream for your life.
18. Borat Subsequent Movie Film
In the first Borat film, Sasha Baron Cohen held a mirror up to America and revealed that bigotry, racism and xenophobia are still very much a thing and we’re more prevalent than a lot of us were aware of. Fourteen years later, he’s back with another film but unfortunately the funny immigrant shtick doesn’t work anymore because there’s nothing left to reveal about anyone. Borat only works when the people he is interviewing think that he’s a foreigner and act accordingly. Some are hilariously befuddled, while others dig their own graves with shovels made out of racism or intolerance. It worked in the early 00s because the world was a much different place but now that there’s a Teflon clown in the White House who’s impossible to satirize, the character is powerless.
You can’t pants someone who’s constantly naked and I think Cohen at a certain point realized that, which is why this film focuses far more on the plot instead of the pranks this time around. The scenes between him and his daughter are the best bits in the film. Played by newcomer Maria Bakalova who’s equally if not more fearless than he is. The shit she says and does in this is jaw dropping and she deserves every bit of acclaim she’s receiving. Her performance alone justifies this film’s existence and if they do ever make a third one, I think it would be smart to focus heavily on her instead of Borat because she’s now the more interesting character. Like most comedy sequels released years and years after the original, it’s a bit of a disappointment but there’s still enough good here to recommend.
Since a good chunk of this film’s enjoyment comes from the mystery of what it actually is, I’ll do my best to talk around the plot. I’ll also try and deflate any hype you have beforehand because while it does get crazy, it’s nowhere near as insane as the critics would lead you to believe. Inspired by but not directly lifting anything from two well known story shapes (I’ll give you a hint: one is from Kurosawa and the other is a famous novel that’s been adapted a million times), Bacurau is about the inhabitants of a small Brazilian town who suddenly realize that they no longer appear on Google maps. There’s also UFO shaped drones popping up around town and locals that seem shifty. What this all means and what it ultimately adds up to, is probably far less sci-fi than you’re expecting but is still a bunch of fun. I just wish it went a bit further. I can’t get into my specific gripes but I wish there was a tad less set up and a smidge more action. I do appreciate the subtle anti message that runs through out though.
Nolan, much like his idol Kubrick, has been criticized for being a cold perfectionist. His detractors often bemoan the lack of heart or an emotional center in his work. Some also label his films as style over substance, claiming that they’re nothing but over-budgeted popcorn films. While I think both criticisms are a bit harsh, I do think there’s a smidgen of truth to them. Nolan has many strengths as a director, he knows how to orchestrate elaborate set pieces and is exceptionally good at scale. All of his films post Insomnia feel huge. He knows how to make big films. And that’s not just because he commands huge budgets. He, like Spielberg and Lean before him, has mastered the art of the epic. But he also has a tendency to get lost within those epics. The Dark Knight Rises was a mess, Interstellar was an ambitious failure that’s nowhere near as meaningful as it thinks it is and Tenet is a James Bond film that’s desperately trying to be more than a James Bond film.
It has all the earmarks of a Bond film: the globetrotting, the maniacal villain, the end of the word plot, and the sci-fi gadgets. The only thing it’s missing is the cool cars and the sexy ladies who inevitably die. It’s 100% a James Bond film but the problem is, it’s way too confusing and convoluted to be a Bond film. The time travel mechanics take forever to get introduced, how they’re used in the third act is poorly communicated and there’s far too little action before that to keep you invested. There’s also a subplot shoehorned in that’s supposed to be emotional or at least heartfelt but was horribly underwritten. I didn’t care about those two characters, so them getting a happy ending meant nothing to me. I think Nolan is a master and I think Tenet has some of his most impressive visuals and set pieces but I also think it has some of his worst writing and characters. This film is him at his best and his worst.
If Man on Fire was directed by one of the guys who made John Wick, it would be Extraction. Both films have similar protagonists, both have similar plots and they both almost end the exact same way. The only difference between the two is that this film gets to the action immediately, whereas the other takes its time. Washington feels like a restrained John Wick in that, where Hemsworth in this feels like Wick the bodyguard. He has to escort a kid with a target on his back from point A to point B without either one of them dying and since there’s about three hundred heavily armed guys in between those two points, it’s not going to be easy. Filled with near non-stop action and excitement, Extraction is the type of movie that knows what it is, knows what you want and delivers more than you were hoping for.
Among the first films made since Covid essentially made shooting anything an impossibility, Host (like unfriended and Searching before it) was made entirely over Zoom. Not only does the film itself take place over one long Zoom call but it was also directed and edited that way as well. It’s not just a gimmick either, social distancing and our lockdown is woven into the plot. They’re performing a séance remotely not because they want to summon a demon or a ghost or whatever but because they’re all terribly bored during quarantine and there’s literally nothing else to do. It’s the first film of its ilk who’s gimmick actually feels justified.
It makes sense why they’re doing this unlike some of the other films that utilize storytelling via contemporary technology like this one does. It’s also less than an hour, which means it never drags (again, unlike some of the other films like this one) and that the scares start happening almost immediately. From the fifteen minute mark till the closing credits, the film is throwing scary shit at you almost non-stop. Admittedly, a lot of that is jump scares and slow camera moves but you can’t fault a hour film for trying to use every trick in the book, especially when they only have 60 minutes to get you.
13. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Good movies are about two things at once. There’s what the film is about, which operates on the intellectual level and how the film makes you feel, which obviously works on the emotional level. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can find a movie that does both while also being ambiguous enough to keep you thinking and talking about it for days or maybe even weeks. And then there’s the work of Charlie Kaufman. Not only do his films work on multiple levels, they’re sometimes beyond ambitious. They’re obtuse to the nth degree. They’re like trying to solve an extreme jumbo word search where the words can be backwards or even misspelled and there is no answer key, just hints. If you’re on his wave length and are thinking like he is, I’m Thinking of Ending Things makes complete and total sense. It’s just hard to properly articulate the hows and the whys to anyone you’re trying to explain it.
The long and short of it is, odd occurrences keep happening to a young couple (Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons) who are on their way to meet the young man’s parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis). The trip before feels like one weird monologue and while they’re there, it feels like Hereditary filtered through the prism of insanity. It’s not a horror film but it does deal with existential dread and the regrets that gnaw at you the older you get. It’s a fantasy conjured up by the dying that has taken on a form of it’s own. Ultimately the film is about killing the imagined life we all pretend we have in order to be free. On top of about a million other things.
12. The Wolf House
Colonia Dignidad was a compound in Chile that for decades housed a cult led by Paul Schafer, a German who fled his country to escape charges of pedophilia. The colony was the site of a range of atrocities that included child sexual abuse, the torture and disappearing of political prisoners, and the physical and mental abuse of its members. The place also had ties to Nazi war criminals and the rise of Pinochet. Knowing that bit of history isn’t essential to understanding and enjoying this film but it does add some context. Since the film is heavily stylized and focuses more on visuals than plot, all that does is add another layer of heaviness to the film.
Without it, the wolf is just a wolf and the house is just a house and that works. That’s a fairy tale. If Jan Švankmajer, Yorgos lanthimos and The Quay Brothers had a baby, that baby would be The Wolf House. That’s the type of dark fantasy this film operates under. But with that context, that wolf is now a cult and that house is a prison. It never beats you over the head with its metaphors. You either know what it is or you don’t and again, either way works. I didn’t know beforehand and I just thought it was about mental illness and learning to live with the wolf trying to break in, instead of keeping him at bay and I still loved it. It’s a beautiful, surreal onion with each layer being more thought provoking than the last.
11. The Trial of the Chicago 7
What separates good Oscar bait from bad Oscar bait? Is it the tone? The direction or acting? The dialogue or characters? No, the answer is nothing. It was a trick question. There is no such thing as good Oscar bait. If the film is Oscar bait, that means it wasn’t made for you. It was created to appease the faceless algorithm that determines what should and what shouldn’t be nominated. Sometimes they’re easy to manipulate and sometimes they’re not but odds are, if the film is a holocaust drama, a “based on a true story” biopic with a feel good ending or a film about the Queen, it will get a nom. And this is certainly a “based on a true story” biopic with a feel good ending. Aaron Sorkin’s retelling of the trial of the Chicago 7 hits all the right notes. It has a great cast, some great moments and some great writing but it all feels calculated and hollow. Having said that, I still enjoyed it for what it was but I doubt I’ll be returning to it any time soon.
10. First Cow
After a chance encounter with a kind Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee), a skilled cook (John Magaro) abandons the group of fur trappers he was with and the two collaborate on a successful business venture involving delicious pastries and a nearby wealthy landowner’s prized milking cow. A simple yet beautifully told story of a friendship trying to overcome the trials and tribulations of the West. That cows milk is their ticket to a better life and with no other options, the two decide to gamble their lives on the pursuit of the American dream. Much like how Portrait of a Lady on Fire found the beauty within a doomed romance, First Cow succeeds at making a doomed friendship beautiful.
09. Weathering With You
Following up the critically acclaimed and massively successful Your Name is no easy feat but Weathering with You proves the director ain’t no one trick pony. A high-school boy who has run away to an alternate version of Tokyo that constantly suffers hard rainfalls, befriends a girl who appears to be able to manipulate the weather. The two of them, plus her kid brother, open a sunshine rental service and everything seems to be going great until her body starts feeling the effects of her weather tampering. As irresistibly romantic as it is awe-inspiringly gorgeous, Weathering With You is a wonderfully charming fantasy that has one foot grounded in reality, while the other one kicks around a ball made up of whimsical magic. Makoto Shinkai made amazing films before Your Name and Weathering with You is proof he can make amazing films after it too.
08. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
His first film Thunder Road made Jim Cummings a director to watch and this one solidifies his place among the most interesting voices in independent cinema. It’s to early to call him the heir apparent to the Coen Brothers signature brand of quirk but if anyone was going to take over the mantle, it’s Cummings. This film already feels a tad like Fargo in that there’s a murder in a small snowy town but instead of the lovable Marge Gunderson, it’s a drunken asshole sheriff and instead of two inept murderers, there’s a werewolf stalking the streets. The Wolf of Snow Hollow likes to alternate between comedy, horror and drama (sometimes all within the same scene) and while that could be jarring for some, I had no problem with the whiplash.
I also had no problem with the main character. He’s an alcoholic fuck up that treats almost everyone around him like shit but unlike most critics or reviewers, it didn’t bother me. I get this character. He’s not just a piece of shit, he’s a piece of shit because everyone around him is incompetent and it’s drivingng him insane. He’s not an easy character to like but there’s something about either Cummings’ performance or the writing that tickles me pink. After two films I think it’s fair to say that either you like his unique brand of comedy or you don’t and I’m strongly in the former category. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
07. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
Blurring the line between what is real and what is the truth, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets presents itself as a documentary but it’s entirely fictitious. The bar the patrons are all inhabiting isn’t closing in 24 hours, the city it takes place in isn’t Las Vegas and there’s clearly some deliberate staging going on but the patrons are all actual barflies and everything they say is improvised. The reality is fabricated but the emotions are real, which makes this far more interesting than a simple documentary. Much like how Herzog uses little lies to get to bigger truths in his docs (in one of his films, he has a subject touch the doorknob to his house three times before entering even though he didn’t have OCD to signify that even though he escaped a POW camp, he can’t escape the prison of his mind), this film does the same thing except it’s fictional. It might be the greatest example of cinéma-vérité in existence. You could remake this shot for shot with the finest actors and it wouldn’t be any more captivating and you could make an actual documentary about these barflies and it wouldn’t be any more revealing. If alcohol brings out the real truth in people and the camera never lies, this might be the most honest film in the history of cinema.
06. His House
There’s an old stand up bit about the difference between white people and black people in horror movies, specifically haunted house movies. The second a creepy house says “get out”, black people listen. It’s a funny joke that reveals a major deficiency in most films within that sub-genre, which is “why are these people still in this house?” Some movies try to subvert this by explaining that it’s the people within the house, not the house itself, that’s haunted. His House does something similar but the way in which it addresses that question is brilliant. The couple at the center of the film (Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku) can’t leave their house due simply to the fact that they’re refugees assigned a shitty duplex within England’s housing complex. If they complain about ghosts or try to leave, they’ll immediately be deported. They’ve left hell for purgatory and they didn’t go alone.
If that’s all this film had going for it, I still would’ve liked it but what makes that set up work even better, is how they both deal with the situation. They both see the ghosts; there’s no question that they’re being haunted but instead of dealing with it, the husband actively chooses to ignore it just so that he can more easily blend in with society. He wants to purge himself of the past in order to adjust to his new life but as the old saying goes, “the past is a ghost that haunts you, from the moment it exists, to the moment you don’t.” His House is an immensely clever and spectacularly spooky haunted house film that’s only one great jump scare away from being a classic.
05. Sound of Metal
As cheesy as it is, the film’s tagline (music was his world. Then silence revealed a new one) really does succinctly reveal what the film is ultimately about. If the film was just about one man’s journey in dealing with his deafness, it wouldn’t be half as interesting nor would it be if it was just about a man struggling to come up with the funds to get the surgery to fix it. Making the lead a former addict adds another layer on top of what easily could’ve been a clichéd melodrama. He got over his past addictions by fixing it. He applied his inherent need to fix things to his own life and worked at it till he overcame them. His sudden hearing loss is now another thing he needs to fix and it’s this character trait that makes the film fascinating.
While on the surface he comes off as a stubborn asshole who refuses to accept his new life, he’s actually just a frustrated fixer who just became impotent. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the film, after he’s checked into the facility, where his counselor (Paul Raci giving an award worthy performance) tells him to just go to his room and just write, where he smashes the donut he’s holding out of frustration and immediately after obliterating it with his fist, he immediately reconstructs the crumbs into a new donut. Which he then precedes to destroy but it’s that act of piecing it together first that reveals everything you need to know about that character. He’ll self destruct, try and fix it and then self destruct again. It’s only when he leaves the donut alone that he’ll finally find peace.
In her essay Raising Kane, Pauline Kael made the case that it was Herman Mankiewicz, not Orson Welles, who truly wrote Citizen Kane. As much as it was an earnest attempt at rewriting history to give the proper man credit, it was a hit piece aimed at Welles and the film itself. She tore into that film like a fat kid does cake but the problem is, almost all of it was bullshit. Former film critic turned director (and good friend of Welles) Peter Bogdanovich counted her accusations with facts and made her essay immediately irrelevant. It eventually faded away and is now like the fifteenth most controversial thing she’s ever written. Since everything in it was disputed, hardly anyone ever talks about it anymore and for good reason but the one good thing it did was put Mankiewicz’s name in the public consciousness. He may not deserve sole credit but he does deserve to be remembered. Now, whether he deserves an entire film about his time writing the film is another story altogether.
Which leads to the biggest issue I have with the film: at no point am I interested in what Mank is doing, only by what he’s saying. Every time he’s sitting behind a typewriter or going to a political rally or drinks to drink, my interest wanes. He’s just not an interesting character and not a single thing he does gets me to care about him. The only reason I can’t take my eyes off of him, is because Gary Oldman was cast to play him and he’s attacking that rapid fire dialogue like a rabid dog. Words shoot out of his mouth faster than a Chicago typewriter. And even more remarkable, Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies is able to keep up with him. Their verbal sparring is the best thing about the movie. The cinematography is great and the score is tremendous but this is a film you watch for the dialogue and in that regard, it’s a massive success. I just wish I cared about the titular character or was given a reason why he’d want to write the script in the first place but just like Kane pining for a sled at the end of that film, I guess I’ll just die mourning the fact that I was denied something great.
03. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
After the film ended and I was reading through the credits, I laughed out loud because of course the directors name is Eliza Hittman because only an emotional assassin could’ve made this film. After she discovers she’s pregnant, a teenage girl (Sidney Flanigan), along with her cousin (Talia Ryder), travel from rural Pennsylvania to New York City in order to get an abortion. There’s much more plot than the premise but it’s the little things that makes this film riveting. The attention to detail that paints a larger world than what we’re seeing. Even after the film’s big emotional scene (which is where the title of the film comes from), the film still makes you piece together the implications of her answers. It conveys emotion through a single tear and uses silence, not monologues, to give you everything you need to know. I still have my own theories as to what exactly happened but whether I’m right or not is irrelevant, what matters is that I feel for her in that moment and not only do I, I see past that moment to a lifetime of hardships both past and in the future. Her entire life was summed up with a handful of words and I understood it completely. It’s a fully realized performance in a masterfully directed scene that unlocks the entire film. Out of everything I saw this year, that scene is what will stay with me for years to come.
02. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
There’s something hypnotic about watching a fire flicker in the dark. Something about the way the flames dance around that pulls you in and keeps you captive even though you know it’s dangerous. But as fleeting as it is, you let yourself be bound by its seductive flickers. The dance pulls you in but the heat keeps you enthralled. That’s why it’s sometimes easier to let the flames extinguish themselves than snuff them out. Because even though it’s just a bonfire and you know the heat was only temporary, for a brief moment you gave yourself over to something beautiful. You know from the beginning of this film, that the love affair between these two women will only be temporary. Their love, like the fire from the title, has an expiration date. On an isolated island at the end of the eighteenth century, a female painter (Noémie Merlant) is commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman (Adèle Haenel) but since the young woman is despondent over the marriage she never wanted, the painter has to paint the portrait in secret. The plan is for her to pretend to be her friend, get close enough to her to make her smile and then use that image to create the portrait.
As you most likely guessed, the closer she gets and the harder she tries to make her smile, the stronger their bond gets until passion overcomes the both of them. Once they fall for each other, everything else falls away. Most films would’ve used her subterfuge as the third act conflict but the film wisely drops it in favor of an affair on a ticking clock. In a handful of days, the young woman’s mother will be back to pick her up to move her to her future husband’s house, meaning the two will never see each other again. So the film makes every second as romantic as it is heartbreaking. Their love may be like a fire but the film itself is like a painting. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous to look at with some frames looking like they belong in louvre. While not a sub-genre per say, studios need to retire the lesbian period piece costume drama because anything released after this will feel redundant.
Mendes must’ve seen the single take shot in Atonement—which for those of you that don’t know, was a long scene set on the beaches of Dunkirk—and thought to himself “I can do that but better.” It only took him 12 years but he finally made Joe Wright hold his beer. 1917 is Mendes’ most purely ambitious and passionate picture to date. Not since Mad Max: Fury Road as a film perfectly embodied the textbook definition of the idea of ‘pure cinema.’ Anyone watching this can easily understand the plot, regardless of their age or language. It uses as little words as possible to convey its message.
Since they were basically making a silent film, the director, along with the God King Deakins, meticulously labored over every shot to make sure that every scene was not only gorgeous but filled with as much visual information as possible. You could watch this on mute and understand what it is they need to do and how dangerous each area they encounter is. In addition to its tremendous wordless storytelling, the film was also designed as one continuous shot, which puts you in the characters shoes. With every step they take, you can feel the ticking clock of dread looming over their heads. It never came off as a gimmick to me but as a tool in which to help fully immerse me into this war. 1917 is an expertly crafted and emotionally exhausting thrill-ride behind enemy lines that’s equal parts beautiful and technically flawless.
What do you think of my ranking? Any film you think I was too hard on? Which films from 2020 that I missed should I watch as soon as possible?