It’s been a very, very weird year. And the movie landscape was severely hampered by a pandemic that closed down most movie theaters and had studios shuffling release dates to and fro. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t great movies that found their way to screens big and small. Amidst all the chaos and confusion, wonderful movies arrived and – if they were lucky – found their audience. With the year now in the rearview, here are my top 10 movies of 2020, and here’s to 2021 – dear god, let it be better for everyone.
The best slasher movie since Scream, Freaky is clever, bloody, funny, and most of all, sweet. Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon once again proves he’s cracked the code to making modern-day horror-comedies by paying respect to both genres. The set-up is kind of simple: a teen girl gets body-swapped with the serial killer who targeted her. But Landon and co-writer Michael Kennedy keep finding ways to make the whole thing seem fresh. Vince Vaughn is pitch-perfect as the teen girl trapped in a hulking killer’s body while Kathryn Newton has a blast as the murderer now in teen form. The kills are gory, the jokes work across the board, and, best of all, the emotional beats are genuinely touching in ways we don’t really expect from this sort of movie. Freaky is proof that you can take a tired formula and make something magical out of it.
Despite the marketing, Mank isn’t really about the making of Citizen Kane. Instead, it’s a film about Old Hollywood, and all the glitz, glam, and depression that comes with it. David Fincher isn’t celebrating the glory days of the big studios – he’s tearing them apart with vitriol. The era is seen through the eyes of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), or Mank as everyone calls him. Mank is brilliant, but he’s also a fall-down drunk who keeps burning his bridges. So when Orson Welles comes calling and offers Mank a job, the drunken writer takes him up on it – and then slowly realizes that he’s writing his masterwork, even if it means he’s going to have to burn some more bridges. Fincher employs old school techniques – matte paintings, cigarette burns, and an audio mix that’s meant to make the film sound as if it’s playing in a cavernous movie house – to create a film that feels both modern and long-forgotten. It’s Mank-tastic!
8. Da 5 Bloods
A blistering history lesson, a heist flick, a buddy comedy, a war movie – Spike Lee‘s Da 5 Bloods is all that, and more. Former war buddies Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), head back to Vietnam in search of buried treasure and the buried remains of their slain squad leader (Chadwick Boseman, whose ghostly performance feels all the more haunting in the wake of his death). But modern-day troubles and the sins of their past plague them at every turn. Messy but brilliant, Da 5 Bloods has Lee firing on all cylinders, crafting a kind of mixed-media presentation that jumps around between filming styles, archival footage, and serious and comedic tones. It should not work, and yet – it does. The cast is dynamite across the board, but it’s Lindo, as the suffering, furious Paul who steals the show. A late-movie monologue that Lindo delivers directly into the camera is so powerful it’ll leave you stunned.
Lee Isaac Chung‘s quiet, contemplative immigrant story Minari follows a Korean-American family that moves to Arkansas in search of the always-illusive American dream. There, the family patriarch – played thoughtfully by Steven Yeun – hopes to strike it big as a farmer. But his wife (Han Ye-ri, just as good as Yeun is here) feels lost and misses their previous California. It’s a relatively simple story but it’s told beautifully, with Chung’s direction and Lachlan Milne’s cinematography rendering the landscape in rich, healthy greens and wide-open skies that clash with the tiny claustrophobic trailer the family moves into. Episodic by nature, Minari‘s leisurely pace allows us to become fully engrossed in the story of the Yi family as they struggle to make a home. You’ll cry your damn eyes out by the time the credits roll.
6. First Cow
Feel free to have a double-feature of Minari and First Cow if you’re in the mood for quiet, lovely A24 movies about chasing the American dream. Opening with the William Blake quote, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship,” First Cow is the story of two unlikely friends who try to strike it big in America. Chef Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant on the run, become partners in a plan to steal milk from the area’s only cow and turn that milk into oily cakes. The cakes are a big hit with the locals, but if Cookie and King-Lu get caught stealing milk, they’re going to be in big trouble. It’s a whimsical set-up, and there is indeed plenty of whimsy afoot in Kelly Reichardt’s film. But First Cow is also sweet and melancholy, and its long stretches of silence fill up your heart.
Inspired by the novel from Susan Scarf Merrell, Josephine Decker‘s Shirley asks: What if author Shirley Jackson was stuck in one of her stories? Elisabeth Moss is Jackson, turning in yet another frantic, manic, downright scary performance as she plays the Lottery and Haunting of Hill House author as if the cheese just nuttier than a five-pound fruitcake. When a young married couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) come to live with Jackson and her smug, professorial husband (Michael Stuhlbarg), things go to hell very quickly – and the circumstances are further complicated when a college student goes missing. Decker, who helmed the weird and wonderful Madeline’s Madeline, uses Jackson’s fractured mindset as an excuse to go absolutely wild – the camera is always on the move, the soundtrack is never silent. Indeed, rather than just music, Decker loads Shirley up with strange, surreal sound effects – train whistles, insect hums, bird songs. It’s jarring and unnatural, and will no doubt leave some viewers cold or even hostile. But Shirley‘s warped portrayal of brilliance, madness, sex, and death is nothing short of amazing.
4. The Invisible Man
Elisabeth Moss had not one but two great movies this year, and in both of them, we get to squirm as we watch her lose her god damn mind. Leigh Whannell’s scary, meticulously crafted The Invisible Man might very well be the first #MeToo horror movie, and while that may sound like I’m throwing around cheap buzzwords, there’s nothing cheap about this movie. Whannell takes the classic story of a man who can turn himself invisible and works it into a film about gaslighting and abuse. Moss plays Cecilia Kass, the long-suffering girlfriend of brilliant, abusive scientist Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She manages to escape from the relationship, and soon after, Adrian dies by suicide. Or does he? Cecilia becomes convinced Adrian is still lurking around – unseen. Understandably, everyone around Cecilia thinks she’s gone off the deep-end – but we know the truth, and it’s terrifying. Whannell’s strict control over his camera and its movement trains our eyes to look for things that aren’t there, keeping us constantly jumpy and on edge. This is horror filmmaking at its absolute finest.
Chloé Zhao‘s achingly beautiful Nomadland follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a nomad who hasn’t had a house since her husband died and the town she lived in died as well following the shutdown of its sole economical source, a gypsum plant. Now, Fern drifts across America in her van, taking odd jobs and connecting with fellow travelers along the way. And nearly every single frame of this film is a work of art – of raw, breathtaking beauty. America is a cold, cruel, hard place to be – but there’s beauty out there waiting to be found. The beauty of flowing rivers where birds sing loud; of sunsets across canyons; of pink-hued skies and landscapes that remain blessedly untouched and unruined. Your heart aches to go there. To hit the road. To never look back. But Zhao isn’t glamorizing Fern’s nomadic life; she’s simply presenting us with the situation and inviting us to watch; to feel; to understand.
2. I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Surreal, somber, and yet often funny as hell, I’m Thinking of Ending Things is unclassifiable. On the surface, Charlie Kaufman’s film a young woman (Jessie Buckley) on a snowy road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis). Even before she gets in the car, the young woman tells us she’s “thinking of ending things.” But what does that mean? Is she about to take her own life? Is she going to break up with Jake? Just what is going on here? There are no easy answers, and the answers we get are bound to leave more than a few viewers utterly perplexed. But Kaufman’s film is a wonderfully weird collection of impenetrable moments – a mix that results in a film that’s creepy, funny, and wholly unique. By the time a talking cartoon pig shows up, you’ll either be fully on board Kaufman’s crazy train or ready to flee for the nearest exit.
Relentlessly brutal, Possessor is a film about abandoning humanity. Brandon Cronenberg‘s body-horror nightmare involves an assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who has the ability to upload her consciousness into other people’s bodies – and then have these possessed people carry out a hit. It’s a wickedly brilliant idea: the real killer gets away completely undetected while the possessed person takes the blame. But the more Riseborough does her job, the more inhuman she becomes, with her kills growing increasingly ghastly. It all leads to a serious problem when the latest person Riseborough has been uploaded into, played by Christopher Abbott, starts fighting back. That sure sounds like the set-up for a Philip K. Dick-like sci-fi thriller, but Cronenberg is more interested in psychology and the savagery, relishing in close-ups of bodies and faces being obliterated beyond repair. It’s a shock to the system – the type of film that leaves you reeling and horrified, but also exhilarated. I’m always on the lookout for a movie that gives me something I never expected; a movie that knocks me on my ass and makes me sit up and ask, “What the fuck was that?” Possessor is that movie. And then some.
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