We're running Top 10 features from our critics for the rest of 2020! You can follow them all here.
This year was, in a lot of ways, a tough one for cinema. With theater closures release date delays, it felt pretty grim. But, something magical happened. Though it sometimes feels impossible to find the light in this cursed year, or to feign exuberance over what it did to the industry, the light peeking through the dirt is the attention given to independent and film festival gems.
Genre was able to shine in new ways when it was the only thing happening, and streaming services latched onto online festival darlings. I started this year thinking there would be nothing, but ended it with a desperate attempt at narrowing it down to a measly top ten. Certainly, it’s more populated than usual with offbeat favorites from this year, and years past that have finally popped up on streaming and VOD, but what a fun twist on the usual it is. So, as we bid adieu to this ever hated year, here are my top ten films of 2020.
10.) Why Don’t You Just Die?
Sometimes the simplest movies are the best, and this hilarious romp about a man whose girlfriend casually asks him to kill her father is one such example of that. Matvey (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) spends most of this movie drenched in blood looking for new ways to harm his love’s dad. There are power drills, hammers and guns, all use to throw carnage around an apartment in this bonkers bloodbath. There are, of course, crime drama style twists and turns like the appearance of bags of cash and questions about allegiance and identity. But what really makes it great is the teeth-rattling collection of wound opening that splashes all over the screen. Matvey might be an impressionable young idiot, but he absolutely holds his own against a terrifying trope of a patriarchal character. And he does it all wearing a Batman logo hoodie, so there’s a lot to love.
9.) The Vast of Night
Throwing us back to the times of The Twilight Zone, this is a spooky science fiction tale that blew me away with tone and execution. Set in the the '50s, The Vast of Night takes us on a journey through one spooky night that suggests maybe humans aren’t alone in the universe. The film does a great job playing with things like decade specific technology (with the inciting incident happening over a switch board), and sensibilities, the event happening on the night of the "big game." The film's also a technical feat, seeming to be shot in one long go. An otherwise light watch, this one is the perfect one to snuggle up to and feel just a hint of a scare.
8.) Black Bear
Black Bear takes your expectations of what a movie should look like and tells you to sit down and shut up about it. Happening in multiple parts, Black Bear is held together by wardrobe hints, a single location, and the titan level acting of its leads. It’s one you don’t want to talk too much about to people who haven’t yet seen it, but not in the way that it’s filled with surprising plot twists, but in the way that you want the weirdness to wash over them. It made me feel what I think mother! Was trying to make me feel. Christopher Abbott, coming off of playing dual roles in Possessor, is ready to give us two more. Sarah Gadon is a charming blast, and Aubrey Plaza shows up to continue to drive home what an immense talent she is, playing multiple variations of “unhinged” while staying relatable. Bring a plaid blanket and settle in.
7.) The Assistant
This is one I found difficult to engage with because it plays what are mundane versions of my daytime life for heavy drama. But in doing so, it shines a light on the horrid "normal" things those lower in the ranks are often made to endure. What Kitty Green does so well in her day in the life of an under-appreciated assistant to a powerful executive, is stay right in her face. The people around Jane (Julia Garner) are faceless ghosts that pass through her life and her boss is but an angry voice on the phone. By keeping this one simple and up Jane’s nose, it highlights the forgotten efforts of the human in charge of keeping things running smoothly. The person who eats the most dirt and only gets the positive feedback on paper. It kept me up at night for its achievements in technical filmmaking and in telling the kind of story that made me want to shriek into a pillow until the morning came.
6.) Extra Ordinary
‘Horror comedy’ means a lot of things. For this unsuspecting gem out of the UK, it means something very specific; a laugh when the devil is around. Rose (Maeve Higgins) has supernatural abilities that she would rather tame so she can live her simple life. But when Martin (Barry Ward) comes to her to protect his daughter, she can’t resist helping him, nor can she resist his charms. It’s a zany riot that gives us Will Forte doing the absolute most as a Rockstar looking to complete a satanic ritual. It’s a warm version of a spooky Casper-like story that sends poor Rose on some disgusting missions to use her abilities to climb the mountain of helping Martin. It’s got a collection of gags similar to Drag me to Hell but in totally different ways that make for cringey laughs that will have you gasping.
5.) The Platform
Ruthless critiques of the world are best when slimmed down to their bare bones. Like ‘the trolley problem’ before it, The Platform reads like a thought experiment about humanity told via a vile story of consumption. The whole ordeal takes place in a prison where two people are relegated to a single numbered floor. Once a day, a buffet of food comes slowly through the floor for a short time before making its way to the bottom levels. Those on higher floors have quicker access to the feed, and those below are made to endure scraps.
It’s easy to see how quickly this will set off into a story about privilege, adequate sharing of resources, and what it would take to convince humanity to share, but the movie does so in a way that keeps it intriguing, interesting, and scary. Not for a lighthearted scare, this one will make you want to look inward, but it comes with no shortage of fun scenes lit up by eccentric supporting characters.
4.) Saint Frances
A nod of thanks to one of What to Watch's editors for helping this one slip past my 2020 goalie. Usually, upon hearing about a heartwarming story of a lost thirty-something taking a nanny job and being forever changed by her charge, I’d turn up my nose until I watched the middle twenty minutes of it on cable to catch a glimpse of Chris Evans. But that’s not the pitch here. Saint Frances is a story of womanhood, of our bodies and the way we treat them, discuss them and know them, and the power of women being there for each other. Love lives and sex lives sit on the periphery in a larger story about women continuing to grow at every age and what can be accomplished if we are ourselves in front of one another. It’s truly beautiful work from writer and star, Kelly O'Sullivan, and made me immediately tell my mom to watch it before the rental expired.
3.) Scare Me
Josh Ruben’s horror story isn’t just unique for being horror comedy in the realm of anthology, but because it takes everything you were told about visual story telling and chucks it out. While not an anthology of horror tales per se, it is a collection of campfire stories swapped with the wraparound of being trapped in a cabin. The games this movie plays are what make it shine.
Carried by titan level acting of the leads, Ruben and Aya Cash, stories become bigger than they are with the use of sound and shadow tricks that bring their narratives to life in ways never take them into surrealism. It’s fun watching two pros jump back and forth into different characters while using their entire space to weave massive yarns, and it does this all with the all important heart. It’s scary, no doubt, but it turns into that beautiful sentiment about horror fans by painting us as people who just want to have fun eliciting a scream.
2.) Birds of Prey
This wasn’t the last film I saw in theaters (that accolade belongs to Bloodshot), but it was the last time I got to get my popcorn in a themed bowl then immediately go home and tap my feet waiting for the digital release. Hell yeah, Birds of Prey. Certainly, other films are credited with reignited DCEU fandom, but, for me, this Harley Quinn lead feature reminded me why I still have hope in the film adaptations of my favorite comics characters.
An absolute blast, BoP brought the noise not just with it’s flawless banger-filled soundtrack, but with some of the best action sequences of the year completed in some of the flyest outfits on screen. It’s difficult to cater to fandoms, develop characters, set up an expanded universe, show off excellent action, and make it a good movie, but it did just that. I was truly blown away by it and I’m so pleased to be able to include it here.
1.) Promising Young Woman
Endlessly divisive, Emerald Fennell’s tale of a woman scorned pushed me over every edge. I didn’t expect my favorites of the year to be unseated, but then Cassie (Carey Mulligan) trotted in wearing pastel shades and rocked my world. This movie is bubble gum pink with a soundtrack to match and managed to keep me up all night shivering. Not because of any ghosts or demons, but because of the bright light it shined on the everyday villains many of us run into in our usual lives. The movie pulls no punches and never lets up, in ways that make you think you haven’t let your guard down when maybe you have. it’s the kind of movie I want to watch a million more times, but maybe save the third act only for nights I feel really ready for it.
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