Tuesday, December 22, 2020

My Top 15 Movies of 2020


This has not been an easy year to be a movie lover. While I know there are more ghastly evils and greater tragedies at play in the world today, loving movies is such a big part of who I am, I would be lying if I said I didn't care. Watching the movie theaters close, and now that whole industry on the brink of collapse, is so disheartening to me. I watched my most anticipated movies of 2020 become my most anticipated movies of 2021. While there was still quite a selection of new films to find on VOD, sitting in bed hunched over alone doesn't quite carry the same joy and slinking down into a reclining theater chair with a big tub of popcorn. As much as I scorn the talkers and the phone users in theaters, I would take all of them back to have that singular communal experience once again. Typically in a year I see right around 90 movies. This year I have seen less than half of that, at just 43. As of this writing, I have not been inside a traditional movie theater in over 10 months.

As I reflect and look back at the movies that were among my favorites of the year, I think the state of the world and my own mental state really informed what movies connected with me emotionally in 2020. Looking at the movies on this list, I see a lot of love. Whether that is family love, romantic love, or totally misguided love, many of my favorites centered around it. Maybe it's because I felt that the world could use more love this year, or maybe because I was feeling a lot of love in my personal life; who knows? But anywho, let's get on with the list.

15. Freaky

Too often on end-of-the-year lists, us so-called “serious” film enthusiasts give too much time and attention to the dark and serious adult dramas that are more deliberately Oscar-bait films. Freaky is neither adult nor serious, but is definitely some of the most fun I've had seeing a film this year. It's premise is simple; it is Freaky Friday meets Friday the 13th. What if a teenage girl switched bodies with a serial killer, and had to fight her way back to her body before time runs out? It stars Kathryn Newton and Vince Vaughn as the teen and the killer, respectively. Both do really incredible jobs inhabiting each other's energy, to both comedic and scary effect, making this blood soaked horror-comedy well worth anyone's time.

14. Babyteeth

Movies in the "teen terminal illness drama" category are a dime a dozen. And most of them are packed to the brim with on-the-nose writing, and saccharine melodrama, making them typically less than perfect, and often even bad. Babyteeth is quite the subversion of that. It's about shitty parents and shitty people orbiting around a teenage girl with terminal cancer. When Milla (Sharp Objects and Little Women standout Eliza Scanlen) becomes infatuated with a twenty-something, rat-tailed, homeless drug dealer named Moses (Toby Wallace) her parents (Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis) initially push back. But when it becomes clear that the amount of joy that Moses brings Milla outweighs the bad, her parents fold and let it happen, to beautiful and catastrophic results. All of the actors listed above are giving career best performances, and there isn't one among them I wouldn't be happy to see in big awards conversation this season. Currently streaming on Hulu.

13. Time

Filmed on camcorders and iPhones, Time is a documentary and a love story that spans two decades. Fox Rich, a social justice advocate and mother, documents her life and the lives of her children for her incarcerated husband as a record for what he has missed while he has been in prison. At the same time, she is taking all of the legal avenues she can to try to expedite the release of her husband. It is a sobering look at how the American prison system attempts to lock away black men and throw away the key, and how little mind it pays to the people trying to make a difference. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

12. The Nest

If ever there was a movie to really encapsulate the evil that capitalism makes men do, The Nest has a reasonable claim to be one of the most effective. When Rory (Jude Law) becomes bored with the stagnation of his professional life, he forces his wife Allison (Carrie Coon) and their children to move back to his native home of England so that he may pursue new business opportunities. Through a series of devastatingly poorly informed and downright selfish decisions, Rory sends his entire family into a tailspin. Where they once new some version of suburban bliss, they now face something much more dark. Probably the most miserable movie watching experience on this list, it's a hard one to recommend for a night in, but the talent on display throughout this picture is impossible to dismiss.

11. Ma Rainy's Black Bottom

More of a bottle episode than a movie (think of Breaking Bad's “The Fly.”), Ma Rainy's Black Bottom hangs nothing on fancy set dressings or snazzy camera work. This is a film about characters, and if even one of the performances was off, the whole thing would go down in flames. Thankfully, there is not a weak link in this entire cast. Based on the August Wilson play of the same name, the movie takes place on one day, all inside of one recording studio as Ma Rainy (Viola Davis) and her band try to record an album, and the trials and tribulations that come with that. In what has ended up as his last on-screen appearance before his death, Chadwick Boseman is the star of this film. He is so locked-in to the material, he delivers his lines and monologues with such frustrated precision, and chews on scenery for the entirety of the film's run time. While this movie is pretty far down on the list, Boseman's performance is easily one of my favorites of the year. And while we all would obviously prefer Boseman to still be alive and able to keep delivering staggeringly good work, what a sensational final performance to leave us with on his way out. Now streaming on Netflix.

10. Host

Host, a film by Rob Savage, was the perfect film for 2020. Filmed entirely over Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic, Host's DIY punk-rock attitude proved that effective filmmaking can not be hindered when there is real drive and talent behind a project. It is damn scary; and this year if you can distract our brains from the horrors of our reality with the horrors of your storytelling, in my books you're doing a bang-up job. Plus, Host only clocks in at about an hour in length, but suffers none from its short running time. It still provides satisfying build-up, and believable characters, thus making a strong case for movies to stop being 2+ hours long. Now streaming on Shudder.

9. Possessor

David Cronenberg has brought us some of the most terrifying visions of body horror ever committed to film, with his movies like Videodrome and The Fly. And in 2020, his son Brandon Cronenberg broke onto the scene with his directorial debut Possessor. And boy did it leave an impression.

Possessor is the story of Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), an assassin with a unique way of killing her marks; she possesses the body of somebody close to the target, and uses this unwilling vessel to do the deed. It's a horrifying concept that makes for some really interesting storytelling. The violence and gore on display here is also not for the faint of heart, and is almost completely rendered using practical, in-camera effects instead of CGI. The very real, tactile nature of these effects does so much more to churn your stomach.

8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Autumn is a 17 year old that finds herself pregnant, and desires not to be. This is the thrust of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, a film by Eliza Hittman. It is a cold an clinical look at the innumerable hoops that women must jump through in our country to achieve something that should be a basic right for all women. It is a scathing indictment of men, who prove to be ineffective at best, and predatory at worst. It is about the deep, emotional connection of female friendship. Newcomer Sidney Flanigan, in her first feature role, conveys the weight of all of this in a way that is somehow at all times strong, but vulnerable. Currently streaming on HBO Max.

7. The Invisible Man

Another film that lives and dies on the strength of it's lead performer, The Invisible Man ended up being one of the most effective and cathartic horror films I have seen in the last couple of years. Starring Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man tackles not only the typical trappings of the films it shares its name with, but also effectively weaves in a modern story about male toxicity, and the long term and haunting effects it has on the women plagued by it. Moss's performance is all the more impressive because in many scenes her scene partner one and nothing. And being able to deliver the caliber of performance that she does with no one to bounce off of is such a noteworthy feat. The shot composition and use of sound also blew me away in this movie, with the director somehow finding ways to make totally empty shots of rooms seem overwhelmingly menacing. Now streaming on HBO Max.

6. I'm Thinking of Ending Things

Based on one of my all-time favorite books, and directed by a favorite filmmaker, there was almost no way I'm Thinking of Ending Things was not going to end up on this list. It's one of those films that is more effective the less you know about it, but the basic premise is that a woman (Wild Rose and Chernobyl star Jessie Buckley) is on a snowy road trip to meet the parents of her boyfriend (Jesse Plemmons). Along the way, she ponders whether or not this relationship is something worth continuing. The film welds together masterfully the already incredible novel by author Iain Reid with the self-hating existentialism of director Charlie Kaufman into something that is so perfectly up my alley that, despite the grim subject matter, had me feeling gleeful throughout. Now streaming on Netflix.

5. Sound of Metal

What could be more frightening than losing one of the things about life that connects you to others the most? And, in the case of Sound of Metal, something empirical to your livelihood? This is challenge that Ruben (Riz Ahmed) must face in Sound of Metal, a film about a recovering addict and metal drummer that loses his hearing. In losing his hearing, he veers back toward his more distressing tendencies, which lands him in a community for the deaf. It's a challenging story, and not always a nice one. Riz Ahmed has been doing great, under appreciated work for quite some time now, and finally gets to sink his teeth into a lead role worth his talent in Sound of Metal. Impressive also is the sound design work on display in the movie, using ringing and total silence to immerse you in the world that Ruben now finds himself in. For example, the sign language in the film is not subtitled until the character himself comes to understand the language. Sound of Metal is about the seasons of life, both good and bad, and how we must come to terms with things that are well beyond our control. I think that is a good lesson for all of to learn this year. Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

4. Swallow

Carlo Mirabella-Davis's Swallow is about the patriarchal control over women's bodies that has been so deeply ingrained into our society. Hunter (Haley Bennett) has been taught and groomed to be the “perfect” housewife. She cooks. She cleans. She has no friends. Her dresses match the furnishings. Her wealthy husband controls every facet of her life. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she has to reckon with the feeling that not even her own body belongs totally to her anymore. How does she cope? She begins to swallow household objects. She starts with a marble, and things escalate from there. The film is full to the brim with metaphor and visual poetry, that so much of what this film is trying to say can be conveyed with a shot; no dialogue necessary. Anchored by Bennett's performance, this one has stuck with me since the beginning of the year when I first saw it. And with 2020 being what it has been, I think that is saying something.

3. Kajillionaire

Kajillionaire exists in a heightened, near fairy tale version of our world, but its messages about love and nurturing are very much rooted in our reality. The film centers around a family of grifters, with focus on the daughter, legally named Old Dolio (Westworld's Evan Rachel Wood). The family lives in the condemned office space of a bubble factory, where periodically the walls leek bright pink, fluffy bubbles. They get by by trying to con people, doing things from stealing mail to trying to return gift certificates.

Old Dolio is a very shut-off, reclusive type of character. Her parents see her much more as a tool than a loved one, and that that relationship begins to weigh heavily on her. She longs for the loving touch of her mother that she never received. Things become even more complicated when a bouncy, likable young woman named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) enters their lives and becomes the center of her parents' affection.

Kajillionaire touches on the tired premise of nurture vs nature, but through an almost absurdist filter, that breathes new life into the material. It is like Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters by way of Quentin Dupieux. It is at the same time heart wrenching and totally ridiculous, and against all odds shapes itself into something not only coherent, but likeable, and totally unlike any other movie from the year.

2. Jumbo

My affinity for romance films is not limited to the love between two humans. The love between a parent and child, or the love between a human and their animal companion can be just as compelling. Or, in the case of Jumbo, the romantic love between a woman and an amusement park ride.

This is territory not totally unfamiliar to movie going audiences. Movies like Spike Jonze's Her and Lars and the Real Girl have covered the love between a person and an inanimate object. But this is the first that I have seen from the female perspective, and in the modern context, that is so much more interesting to explore.

Jumbo follows Jeanne (the always magnificent Noemie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) a socially awkward young women who works at an amusement park. The rides are her passion; instead of spending time with friends, she builds functional, handmade replicas of her park's rides in her bedroom. Best as her mother tries to get her to date, Jeanne seems to have little interest in (human) men. But when a new ride comes to the park, it sparks her romantic passion in a way she did not expect.

Unlike human men, who often act impulsively and without forethought, Jumbo (the ride) operates as intended. He spins when he is supposed to, he goes faster and slower as you please. He always gives you what you expect, and Jeanne finds deep love within that. Which isn't to say that Jumbo is without personality; he's a charming ride that reciprocates Jeanne's love. And it is only once Jumbo begins to act outside of his base function, and more like a human man, that things begin to take a turn.

As genuinely bonkers as everything I just wrote sounds, the movie is, while unconventional, a sincerely beautiful love story.

1. Shithouse

Many of my favorite movies of all time are romantic films that largely consist of the two leads walking and talking. I love to be a fly on the wall to watch love blossom, love exist, and sometimes sadly to see love end. It's why I hold Richard Linklater's Before Trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) in such a high regard. Cooper Raiff, a 22 year old first time filmmaker writes, directs, and stars in Shithouse alongside Dylan Gelula, and with that has crafted my favorite film of 2020. It is about a college freshman named Alex (Raiff) who shares a magical all-night hangout with Maggie (Gelula) that ends in the two sleeping together. The morning after, things get awkward.

Despite its slightly misleading, edgy title, Shithouse is a sincere and honest look inside the tribulations both personal and romantically that young people must suffer through today. And it's all told through a sensitive softboy lens that if it were anymore my shit, I'd have thought I directed the movie myself. Raiff, in writing and directing himself, makes no effort to paint himself as cool or confident. Quite the opposite actually. He is an 18-year old that has conversations with his childhood stuffed animal and cries because he misses his mom. He is alive with many of the insecurities that we all feel during those years of our lives, but often aren't comfortable enough to discuss out loud. He is as broken minded because of social media as we all are, creepily stalking his crush's Instagram after their night together. He has to grapple with who he is expected to be as a young man in college, and with being true to his authentic self.

Gelula brings an opposite but equal energy to Maggie. Maggie is becoming herself in college, escaping a home life that was less than perfect. She is frightened of feelings, because feelings hurt, and she is so focused on her school life that she doesn't think she has time for feelings. The way this creates conflict between the two leads feels so honest and true-to-life.

The key to this movie working is its authenticity. It doesn't feel like a sugar coated, melodramatic story of a college romance. It isn't heightened in any way. It feels like you could peek through the window of a college dorm on any given night and see something exactly like this unfolding. It's just so rare that we are blessed with a film that is so honest and vulnerable, but also so warm. All of that is what adds up to Shithouse being my favorite movie of the year.