Allow me to be the absolute first to say, 2020 was a strange year, and not least of all for movies. Beyond the fact that I no longer work in the industry after 20 years of doing almost nothing else for a living, there came a time about a month ago when critics began dropping their top 10 lists, and I found that not only had I not seen a lot of the titles, but I had not even heard of many of them yet.
I spent the past month catching up on some of those titles, and I probably saw close to my usual 100+ new releases in the past 12 months, but of the 10 favorites I have selected below, not one was viewed in a theater (of the few I did see theatrically before March 13th, my favorite was Bacurau). Since we have all been forced to get more accustomed than ever to screening movies at home, I have included the streaming service on which each of these personal favorites can be viewed at the end of each entry.
HOST – Not to be confused with the Bong Joon Ho monster movie or the YA adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan (those are both called The Host), Host is not quite like any other movie. The closest comparison points would be The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, and other found footage horror movies, but the haunted Zoom session of Host is far from a retread of familiar territory. Director Rob Savage and his co-writers Gemma Hurley and Jed Shepherd expertly mine the shaky, limited view of a laptop or tablet camera for effective scares, but first they lay the groundwork and gradually build suspense. “You have to cover a cough with a fart now, instead of the other way around,” Haley (Haley Bishop) says near the beginning, to the nervous laughter of her friends. As any great horror movie should, Host provides cathartic supernatural scares by tapping into our very real and ordinary fears. At a mere 57 minutes, it is debatable whether it should even be considered a feature, and it is a pure horror movie unlikely to convert anyone who is not already a confirmed fan of the genre, but no other movie from 2020 made me more excited about the continued possibilities of the medium. (Shudder)
THE ASSISTANT – In much the same way The Master is about L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology without technically being about either of those things, Kitty Green’s narrative feature debut The Assistant is very much about Harvey Weinstein, without being specifically (or only) about Harvey Weinstein. As the title suggests, it is about the network of enablers and abettors powerful men build in order to shield themselves from consequences for their actions. The title character, Jane (Julia Garner, in perhaps the best performance of the year), is literally a personal assistant to the Boss (the voice of Jay O. Sanders, though he is never seen and referred to only as Him), but as she gradually realizes over the course of the day chronicled by the film, her assistance extends far beyond the stated duties of her job. The title takes on archetypal significance as Jane is undoubtedly just one of the countless unwillingly complicit in a machine big enough to chew up their career ambitions and spit them out if they make waves, which Wilcock the HR rep (Matthew Macfadyen, chilling in his single scene) makes baldly clear to her when she does try to make right what she knows is wrong. This has to be the most gripping movie ever made about what is, sadly, just an ordinary day for Jane and everyone she represents. (Hulu)
PALM SPRINGS – If ever a single movie has spawned an entire subgenre, Groundhog Day is that movie. The idea of infinitely repeating the same day (or whatever set period of time you choose) has run the gamut from comedies like the originator and this hilarious and moving Lonely Island production, to hard sci-fi action (Edge of Tomorrow), to slasher movie riffs (the Happy Death Day movies), and that’s just the ones I’ve seen. Palm Springs takes a unique approach by beginning somewhere in the middle of the infinite loop being experienced by Nyles (Andy Samberg), who is able to bring other people, like Sarah (Cristin Milioti), into the loop with him. Sarah becomes the audience surrogate, then, but the movie never gets bogged down in exposition, maintaining a breezy and delightful vibe even as it gets surprisingly dark and existential at times. No other movie in 2020 made me smile more. (Hulu)
THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME – From the very beginning, with the crucifixion imagery and the slow, measured voice-over narration by the author of the novel, Donald Ray Pollock (a vocal dead ringer for fellow three-namer Billy Bob Thornton), there is something about The Devil All the Time that just gets into your blood. This is that good old classic Southern Gothic shit, exploring the deepest, darkest depravities of the strangest people in coal country. We got a crazy preacher pouring venomous spiders on his head to prove his faith (Harry Melling), and an evil preacher who seduces and preys upon the young and innocent (Robert Pattinson, in his wildest and most enjoyable performance yet), not to mention a thrill-killing couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) and a whole lot of generational trauma. It’s a goddamn freakshow, folks, and the one decent fella who might just make it out of the whole mess with his life and some measure of sanity is none other than young Spider-Man himself, Tom Holland. It all goes to show, if you wanna make a proper Southern Gothic, get you some British actors. (Netflix)
YES, GOD, YES – To call this a teen sex comedy would be doing it a disservice, as it would imply some sort of kinship with the likes of Porky’s and American Pie. Not a knock against those movies or their ilk (I don’t mean to be a snob or anything), but Yes, God, Yes is a cut above, and more of the caliber of excellent recent coming-of-age movies like Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, and mid90s. It does, however, focus more on the sexual awakening of its protagonist, Alice (Natalia Dyer), and as the title implies, the crisis of faith that accompanies it. First-time director Karen Maine, who previously co-wrote the wonderful abortion comedy Obvious Child, adeptly navigates the murky waters of adolescence and avoids making anyone an easy “bad guy” even as she allows for some schadenfreude over the exposure of hypocrisy in religious proselytizers. (Netflix)
THE INVISIBLE MAN – In no way an actual adaptation of the classic H.G. Wells novel, this is instead a gripping thriller for our current times, repositioning the protagonist of the novel as a villainous supporting player. Instead, the heroine of this riveting new take on the story from writer-director Leigh Whannell (famous for writing the original Saw and eventually directing the wildly entertaining Upgrade) is Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss, in another one of the best performances of the year), the abused former girlfriend of our invisible man, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, of the excellent Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House). Far from being a social polemic, though, this is the action-thriller of the year, and it is clear from the incredibly tense opening sequence that Whannell is a master of suspense. (HBO Max)
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS – Practically the dictionary definition of “not for everyone,” the latest film from brilliant writer-director Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) may be his most challenging work yet, perhaps even more inscrutable than his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, and certainly no less bleak. On a single viewing, even a confirmed fan like myself wavered between intense, wide-eyed interest and pure confusion at times. There just really is a lot going on here, and it really stuck with me over the past several months. The whole thing is an immersive delve into the strange psychological terrain of at least one of the primary characters, but it is not immediately clear whose psyche we are exploring. Is it Jake (Jesse Plemons) or the unnamed young woman (Jessie Buckley) who somewhat regretfully accompanies him to the home of his aging parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis, both excellent as always)? And just what exactly is going on with the ever-shifting timeline? A fascinating and unique movie that clearly requires multiple viewings to fully comprehend. (Netflix)
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM – Some might criticize Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation of the August Wilson play for being too stagey, but I found the theatricality of it to be a strength. While the similarly excellent theatrical adaptation One Night in Miami… works to transcend its stage roots by expanding beyond the single setting and providing some background on each of its four central characters, this adaptation leans into those theatrical elements and embraces them. Chadwick Boseman gives his fiery all to his final movie role, and Viola Davis has her own show-stopping monologue near the midpoint, but Colman Domingo, Glynn Turman, and Michael Potts also get their chances to shine as the other musicians in Ma’s quartet, and director George C. Wolfe expertly conveys the tension of the too-small room on a hot summer day. It is the ending, though, that final shot conveying the triumph of evil in all its banality, that really made this one stick with me. (Netflix)
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD – Who is Dick Johnson? you might ask, and that is sort of the point. He is not a famous man, or what is traditionally considered an important one, but his very ordinariness reminds us of the universality of death, one of the few things we all have in common. At the same time, director Kirsten Johnson shows us how her father is not just an ordinary man, but a warm and wonderful one who is impossible not to love, and the specificity of who he is makes him compelling. Equally compelling is the premise of this documentary, in which the father-daughter team conceive and execute a series of fake deaths for the elder Johnson, as a way of coping with the omnipresent awareness of his actual impending demise. This movie is delightful, full of laughter, tears, and unfettered humanity. (Netflix)
COLOR OUT OF SPACE – H.P. Lovecraft. Nicolas Cage. The return of the wonderfully weird Richard Stanley, almost 25 years after the disastrous Island of Dr. Moreau production that nearly killed his career (as chronicled in the excellent 2014 documentary Lost Soul). Though it is impossible to truly capture Lovecraft’s concept of a color no one has ever seen before, a color so alien it can drive a person mad, on camera, Stanley more than makes up for it with an eerie sense of building dread and practical effects that call to mind John Carpenter’s The Thing (no higher compliment can be paid to a horror movie). Joely Richardson brings real pathos to a role that could have been nothing more than a gruesome effect, and Cage is, of course, excellent in a role that calls on him to gradually go mad, but there is a real progression to it, and it never becomes the over-the-top histrionics you might expect. To top it all off, Tommy Chong appears as an aging stoner named Ezra, and it’s about damn time I was immortalized in such a way. (Shudder)