Saying “2020 was a weird year for movies” is like saying “Jimmy Stewart is a weird choice to play Batman” in that Jimmy Stewart was a famously gentle man and has also been dead for 23 years. A year without any traditional blockbusters or any movie theaters in which to see them has meant that I’ve probably watched more films in the past 12 months than I have in any previous year. It’s just too easy to collapse into my couch and pull something up on Netflix and Amazon than it is to drive 20 minutes away and spend $20 to rent someone else’s couch for two or three hours next to a bunch of noisy strangers and watch a movie I cannot pause or rewind. The downside to watching so many movies from the comfort of my own sofa is that many of them tend to blend together – when watching a new movie transforms from a weekly event into something I do a few times a week (sometimes even a few times a day), it gets hard to keep track of them all.
However, there were still a number of films that made a lasting impression on me in 2020, and I only got to see a handful of them in a movie theater. In fact, I had so many favorites this year that I had to make some legitimately tough decisions. For instance, I really enjoyed the ingenuity of Spree and the impishly game performance of Joe Keery as a homicidal rideshare driver grasping for internet fame, and I loved the Southern gothic griminess of The Devil All the Time and Robert Pattinson’s bombastic portrayal of a sleazy small-town preacher. Bad Boys for Life was a surprisingly energized sequel with real emotional stakes (although it has aged noticeably in the wake of police protests since its January release), and I would take a bullet for the unexpected joy of Deep Blue Sea 3. I am in no way kidding, rent that movie immediately.
As always, there were a handful of movies I was expecting to love that wound up being more disappointing than my monthly summary email from Uber Eats. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was an incredibly average James Bond film that didn’t respect its audience enough to actually explain its sci-fi gimmick. Onward struck some emotional notes but ultimately felt surprisingly small and forgettable for a Pixar fantasy adventure. And Mank, David Fincher’s first film in 6 years, is an extremely OK movie with virtually no conflict and barely identified stakes.
Here are my top ten films of 2020, a list that once again leans towards horror (because I am at heart a spooky boi) but one that undeniably includes the movies that hit me the hardest in this weird ass year we all just endured. Please note that I really, really debated including Russell Crowe’s Unhinged.
10. Hunter Hunter
“Devon Sawa fights a wolf” is the humorously reductive phrase I used to sell people on Hunter Hunter, but it actually does the movie a disservice – Sawa hunting a killer wolf is indeed an element of the film, but it is by no means what the movie is about. A grim thriller following a trapper living in the Canadian wilderness with his family, Hunter Hunter begins as a somber tale about survival, not only in the literal sense but also in the sense of preserving a way of life. Joe (Sawa), his wife Anne (Camille Sullivan), and their 13-year-old daughter Renee (Summer H. Howell) are facing a difficult season as the value of their furs have dropped considerably. Meanwhile, a rogue wolf that has plagued them in the past has returned and begun stealing animals from Joe’s traps. Joe resists Anne’s idea to move them closer to civilization to make an easier life for Renee and refuses to report the wolf to the Fish and Wildlife Department, instead setting out on his own to try and trap it. And that’s all I’m going to tell you, because the film subverts itself at that point and becomes something else entirely, tighten the screws of visceral tension until cutting completely loose with a shocking finale. The phrase “a ripping good yarn” doesn’t get used nearly as often as it should, but Hunter Hunter, written and directed by Shawn Linden, is exactly that. It plays out like a top-shelf short story by Stephen King (with more authentic dialogue, no offense to Mr. King), and the performances, particularly by Sullivan and Sawa, are captivating. Sullivan especially provides an emotionally raw intensity that plunged the film’s final act into my brain like a railroad spike. If you like your thrillers with a palpable sense of dread, watch Hunter Hunter immediately.
The logline of Freaky is simple enough – “It’s Freaky Friday, except a teenage girl swaps bodies with a middle-aged serial killer” – but as is the case with most genre movies, the meat is in the execution. (Pun unrepentantly intended.) From director Christopher Landon, whose similarly high-concept horror comedies Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2U are also standouts of the genre, Freaky has awkward Kathryn Newton trade places with hulking murder juggernaut Vince Vaughn, and both actors absolutely attack the film with game-as-hell performances that elevate the material above some admittedly weak writing. Vaughn works surprisingly well as a Jason Vorhees stand-in, gruesomely ripping his way through horny teenagers in sequences that abruptly remind you just how freaking big he is. But he spends the majority of the film as Millie (Newton), a shy, bullied teenager struggling to deal with suddenly being trapped in the body of a 50-year-old giant. There’s a fun running gag of Mille crashing into things like a baby giraffe as she tries to steer the killer’s body, and of the killer being constantly reminded that he can’t simply smash through doors and overpower people with the body of a petite teenage girl. The best scenes involve Millie interacting with her high school friends, in particular a hilarious chase sequence in which she desperately tries to convince them she’s not really the notorious Blissfield Butcher. Newton also has a blast as the displaced Butcher, and while she doesn’t have many lines as the killer, she crafts an irresistibly watchable performance with her physicality and facial expressions. There’s also an appreciable level of gore for slasher movie fans, but nothing that undercuts the comedy as nobody we really care about is ever in any danger. Freaky is not without its flaws – it pays extreme lip service to the idea that the timid Millie discovers her inner strength thanks to being stuck in the Butcher’s powerful body, and despite its novel premise the movie is very much a by-the-numbers slasher – but Vaughn and Newton’s gung-ho performances transform it into some of the most fun I had watching a movie this year.
8. The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night is impressive as hell. An extremely small movie about an alien invasion in 1950s small town New Mexico plays out like an old suspense program on the radio, or an especially well-crafted episode of The Twilight Zone. (Nearly all of the original Rod Serling episodes are damn near perfect in my mind, so consider that to be very high praise.) We experience the majority of the tension through local disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) and telephone switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick), two teenagers who pick up a mysterious signal while working their respective jobs and become determined to discover its origin. The film is expertly crafted, creating a pervasive spookiness amidst the shadows as Fay and Everett track the signal through the mostly deserted streets of the town while the majority of its citizens are attending the high school basketball game. I compared The Vast of Night to a radio play earlier, and that’s largely because the suspense comes through the dialogue, in particular a mysterious caller who phones into Everett’s show to help them identify the signal, and an old woman who tells them a creepy-as-all-hell story about encountering the aliens decades earlier. Every frame of this movie does justice to its ominous title, luxuriating in its minimal cast and the dark open spaces of the town and its surrounding environs. It’s a slow burn, but those who stick with it will find an immensely satisfying sci-fi thriller that is both an authentic throwback and an exciting new vision of what low budget spook shows can be.
7. His House
Ostensibly a haunted house movie about a Sudanese refugee couple trying to adjust to their new life in England while contending with malevolent spirits infesting their dilapidated government-assigned tenement, His House is really a film about survivor’s guilt. Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) lost their young daughter Nyagak (Malaika Abigaba), who fell off of a motorboat and drowned as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean on their way to seek asylum in England. Three months later, they are adjusting to their new lives in very different ways – Bol is eager to assimilate to British culture, hanging out in pubs with the locals and changing his clothes to look more like white people in advertisements. Meanwhile, Rial is confronted with a much more difficult experience, encountering harsh racism from their tenement neighbors and finding life in England terrifying and unwelcoming. Similarly, the ghosts in their house threaten them in different ways – they haunt Bol with some terrible secret he is desperately trying to forget, and they terrorize Rial with fear and shame for abandoning her daughter and her family’s culture. At once horrifying and heart-wrenching, His House balances the dual hauntings to portray the different manifestations of survivor’s guilt, ultimately pitting the couple against each other as both Bol and Rial view each other’s position as a cruel betrayal. Dirisu and Mosaku are powerful presences in the film, particularly Mosaku, who portrays Rial with an intensity that is both profoundly wounded and resolute. (She’s had a heck of a year, having also contributed a scene-stealing performance as Ruby in HBO’s Lovecraft Country). His House is a powerful film, both as an exploration of a complicated mental condition and as an exercise in wild-ass visuals that will keep you up at night.
Brandon Cronenberg’s trippy psychological sci-fi film is part assassination thriller, part Cronenbergian existential horror film, and part cyberpunk slasher film. It follows a hyper-specialized hitman named Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), who works for an organization that can literally implant her consciousness into another person’s body to carry out murder-for-hire contracts with absolutely no means of detection – the police will simply arrest or kill the puppet person, who will have no memory of the period during which Tasya was controlling their body. However, the act of existing within another person’s mind has lasting effects, gradually erasing her sense of self and her own identity and memories. During a later contract, Tasya becomes trapped within the body of her host, Colin (Christopher Abbott), who proves to have a stronger consciousness than she anticipated. Possessor is a delightfully high-concept movie with some absolutely incredible sequences, as Cronenberg continuous to find clever ways to portray Tasya’s struggle against Colin in their war of the psyche. It’s also grim and brutal, making nihilistic comments on the nature of self and questioning from where your identity and values truly originate. The body is certainly a vessel, but Possessor seems to be asking whether the mind is one as well, as Tasya continues to lose pieces of hers with each contract. It’s an unapologetic piece of hard science fiction with some stunning visuals and a ballistic missile of a finale that asks us to decide what constitutes the true destruction of self.
5. Promising Young Woman
I wanted to like Promising Young Woman more than I did, which doesn’t diminish the fact that it is still hands down one of the best films I saw this year. Written and directed by Emerald Fennell, the movie follows Cassie (Carey Mulligan) as she enacts an elaborate revenge plot against her former med school classmates for an unspeakable act against her best friend. It’s a sharp black comic thriller featuring an incredible performance from Mulligan, with cleverly subversive scenes that build up to an absolute gut-punch of an ending that I’m still processing. It’s sure to generate some controversy (the film’s finale is undeniably appropriate but also a pretty abrupt tonal shift), and while it ultimately left me a little disappointed, Promising Young Woman is an unforgettable film that I can’t wait to watch again once my stomach settles from my initial viewing. The punishing nature of its climax reinforces the bitter irony of its title, and no movie I saw this year left me sitting alone with my thoughts as long as this one did after the credits rolled. Also, it should be required viewing for cishet men in the dating world, because it shows you just how sinister even the “nicest” guy can seem. (I didn’t even trust Bo Burnham, and that’s saying something.)
4. Color Out of Space
Color Out of Space marks Richard Stanley’s triumphant return to cinema, and I’m excited to report it is a neon-soaked kaleidoscope of cosmic body-ripping horror featuring Nicolas Cage at Maximum Cage. Based on the novella by H.P. Lovecraft, Stanley’s adaptation is one of the more faithful interpretations of Lovecraft’s work, telling the story of a mysterious meteor that crashes onto a family’s farm in New England and begins to distort and disfigure everything around it, including time itself. Color Out of Space is a gorgeous film, gradually imbuing each scene with feverish light to create a sense of something truly otherworldly until finally exploding into a reality-bending finale that bombards your senses with ghastly, horrific beauty. Cage gives an appreciable performance as the family patriarch Nathan, one that initially calls for the subdued amiability of his early career before ratcheting up to the Full-Blown Nicolas Cage of the late 90s and onward. But Stanley uses Cage’s energy here to create something unsettling – a dependable man becoming completely unmoored – that is 100% not played for laughs. (Except for maybe that tomato scene.) It’s creepy, and that smart manipulation of the audience’s perception of Cage is just one of many tools Color Out of Space uses to seep into your skin. It’s an amazing achievement, and I’m beyond excited to see Stanley’s version of Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, which is supposedly what he is working on next.
3. The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man was one of the first movies I saw in 2020, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Writer/director Leigh Whannell reimagined the classic Universal movie monster as an obsessive scientist using his fantastical invisible technology to fake his death and gaslight the shit out of his ex-girlfriend Cecilia, played with absolute perfection by Elisabeth Moss. From the moment we see Cecilia escape Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) in a tense opening sequence, Moss convincingly portrays an abuse survivor wrestling with her own uncertainty over whether Adrian’s invisible horseshit is all in her head and her desperate need for her sister (Harriet Dyer) and her best friend (Aldis Hodge) to believe what is happening to her. It’s simultaneously an indictment of how women’s claims of abuse tend to be downplayed or dismissed outright, and also just a really well-crafted horror movie. Whannell, who already established himself as a capable director with 2018’s surprise hit Upgrade, ups his game considerably with The Invisible Man, using simple framing techniques and slow pans to create a perpetual sense of unease – is the room truly empty, or is Adrian standing right there in front of us? The suffocating tension creates room for a handful of truly shocking moments, made even more effective by the fact that Whannell’s clever direction has left us (much like Cecilia) never certain of when we’re actually safe.
2. Bill and Ted Face the Music
There were a lot of movies that suffered from being released in 2020, but one of the few that may have benefited is Bill and Ted Face the Music. The third Bill and Ted outing is a movie about the positivity, hope, and joy there is to be found in sharing an experience with others, and while this message would’ve resonated at any time, it was an absolute ray of light when it debuted this August. The film finds a middle-aged Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) having yet to fulfil their destiny of uniting the world with their music, which slowly begins to unmake reality. Faced with less than two hours to write the song that will save the universe, they decide to travel into the future to try and simply get the song from their future selves after it has already been written. Meanwhile, their daughters Thea and Billie (Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine) travel into the past to assemble another all-star band to help their dads. Bill and Ted Face the Music is endearingly funny, with some fun musical cameos including Dave Grohl and Kid Cudi, and several standout performances, primarily Weaving and Lundy-Paine as Thea and Billie and Anthony Carrigan as a cripplingly insecure assassination robot named Dennis Caleb McCoy. Reeves and Winter also gamely slide right back into the roles they last played nearly 30 years ago as if no time had passed at all. But the real charm of Bill and Ted Saves the Music is how nakedly joyful it is, particularly the film’s finale, which emphasizes the fact that music is one of the only forms of human expression that transcends time and language.
1. Da 5 Bloods
Delroy Lindo gives the performance of his career in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a powerfully visceral drama about trauma, guilt, the bonds of brotherhood, and the true cost of war. A group of four Vietnam veterans (Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr.) return to the country in the present day to search for the remains of their fallen squad leader “Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman). However, the other, less glorious purpose of their trip is to recover a crate of gold bars they stole from a downed CIA airplane and buried somewhere in the Vietnamese countryside. Lindo plays Paul, a man so simultaneously tortured and enraged by what happened during the war that he is at once the film’s biggest victim and its most monstrous villain. Jonathan Majors plays Paul’s son David, who tags along on the trip and is the most frequent target of Paul’s poisonous anger. And Boseman, who plays “Stormin” Norman primarily in flashbacks, has a ghostly presence throughout the film that feels especially poignant and bittersweet in the wake of the actor’s sudden passing earlier this year. Like much of Lee’s work, Da 5 Bloods is unflinching in its portrayal of the Vietnam War and its lasting effects, specifically on the Vietnamese people and on Black American soldiers. It begins with grisly newsreel footage that Lee does not dare to censor, which is both shocking and utterly necessary to set the stage for the gut-wrenching story he is about to tell. (Be warned – the footage is both real and disturbing, and I was not expecting it when I started the movie.) It’s part Treasure of the Sierra Madre and part Heart of Darkness, with Lee keeping a steady focus on the societal impact of the war and its policies. Da 5 Bloods is an intense film about some incredibly heavy things, but it never feels exploitative, and there is hope and redemption at the end for its embattled characters.
Be sure to catch up on all of Collider’s Best of 2020 content.
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