We're running Top 10 features from our critics for the rest of 2020! You can follow them all here.
Welcome to the end of 2020. A lot of things sucked harder and in more ways than ever before this year. But hey, at least Millennials and the younger generations no longer have to hear our parents tell us things were a lot harder when they were our age. What is this, the third major recession of our lifetime? That's not even beginning to take the Nazis into consideration. So, that's all been great.
You know what was good though? Movies. The state of theatrical exhibition might be in more jeopardy than we've ever seen, but movies will always be good. With the hellscape of 2020 also came the opportunity for VOD titles to shine. Things that would have been (wrongly) swept under the rug in past years were suddenly shoved into the forefront with no other options readily available. We might all be buried under 20 lbs of garbage, but at least we have movies going for us.
That invigorating pep talk aside, here are my Top 10 films of 2020:
10. Sea Fever
Sea Fever is the type of film that would be created if someone asked “what elements do we put together to create Mia’s perfect movie?” Smart, competent, loner lady scientist? Check. Ominous sea creature? Check. Cute boys with parasites in their eyeballs? Check. We’re not going any farther down the list lest we head to spoiler town, but rest assured: Sea Fever is great.
We follow Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) as she boards an Irish trawling boat to continue her work in studying faunal behavioral patterns in ocean-life. What she didn’t sign up for was a battle on the food chain with an ocean-dwelling parasite that means to take over her ship. This one most certainly hits harder in the COVID-era than it did when it premiered at Fantastic Fest 2019, but only in ways that strengthen the film.
9. Promising Young Woman
If you’ve heard that this movie is going to vex some folks, you should know that that’s the gospel truth. Promising Young Woman will not be for everyone, and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to decide if a certain aspect of it was even for me. But, after some reflection, it became clear that the film’s overall message was larger than an individual frustration. It’s difficult to explain without spoilers, but even that irritation plays into the web the film is weaving. You’re supposed to be infuriated by it. Your mileage may vary as to whether that’s something you want from a film.
It also happens to be downright gorgeous. The infuriating subject matter is juxtaposed against a cotton candy color palette used in shot after beautiful shot. If that’s not enough to pull you in, the soundtrack ain’t half bad either!
8. Birds of Prey
None of us are immune to being Big Baby Fans™ on occasion (though if you take that nonsense to social media you’re a butthead no matter the frequency). Birds of Prey was a Big Baby Fan™ moment for me. There is no Birds of Prey without Barbara Gordon. And there sure as hell isn’t a Birds of Prey that’s somehow founded by Harley Freaking Quinn.
But there was, and there is, and it just so happens to be pretty darn splendid? Lack of its founder and an extremely frustrating – and now scrapped – original title aside, Birds of Prey came out swinging with a stunning color palette, a bangin’ soundtrack, and a mixture of misfits that will whip your ass if you try to play games. Each performance is unique, and they all come together in a wonderful blend that joins Aquaman, Shazam, and Wonder Woman as the balms of the otherwise grimdark DCEU.
Every once in a while, there’s a film that blows you away. While I expected to enjoy Shudder’s Monstrum, I in no way expected to be gushing about it months later. As you can tell by its placement in this list, that gushing hasn’t stopped. Heo Jong-ho’s period action flick is everything I want in a movie: a corrupt government, a reluctant hero, a sassy and capable female lead, and a delightful (and perhaps misunderstood) creature. Taking place during King Jungjong’s reign in 1527, the film follows Yun-Kyum (Kim Myung-min), Myung (Lee Hye-ri) and Hur (Choi Woo-shik) as they seek out the creature that plagues their kingdom. But is the problem the monster itself or the government that allows it to harass their people? You’ll have to watch and see, but this girl is Team Sparkles for life.
While I’m the first person to hunker down into a marathon filled with blood and gore, I feel that horror is at its most exceptional when it takes its time to be terrifying in non-traditional ways. In Relic’s case, that is by way of being a heartfelt and devastating tale of mortality. Its most gruesome scene is also its most tender. We see three generations of women come to terms with an unavoidable fate as well as how close each woman finds herself to it before it’s all said and done. The story leading up to the complex and layered climax is no slouch, either. The use of sticky notes as exposition in this film will delight me until the day I die.
5. The Old Guard
Netflix movies can be algorithmic and messy, to be sure. Thankfully, there’s not a hint of that in The Old Guard. A group of immortal mercenaries on a mission? You have me intrigued. Two of them are gay lovers who met in the crusades and have adored each other every day since? The leader is a gruff but layered woman who distances herself because of a lost love? There could be a new immortal making their way into the mix?! You have, and I cannot stress this enough, every ounce of my attention. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s action stunner doesn’t waste a second of its two-hour runtime. We’re given time to meet, engage with, and really ingest what these immortals are going through, all while they cut their way through those who would oppose them.
The film’s action sequences punch well above their weight class, and the performances – particularly of Theron as Andy – are incredible. 2020 might have been a year without superhero fare, but I have no doubt that The Old Guard would have remained a part of the conversation even if there had been.
4. His House
Lovecraft Country left me with a desire to watch anything Wunmi Mosaku graced with her presence, and His House certainly didn’t disappoint. Rial (Musaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu) are refugees from South Sudan. In the beginning of the film, we see a glimpse of the horrors they faced trying to get their family to Europe. But the horrors don’t stop chasing them once they’re “safe” in the outskirts of London.
Through the course of the film, we watch a complex tale of survivor’s guilt woven together with a couple trying to navigate a new life in a land that doesn’t seem to want them. While Rial is keen to hold on to the traditions of their past, Bol wants nothing more than to move on from their culture and transition to a more white-friendly version of himself. Their warring perspectives are plagued by ghosts of their past, but what’s inside their hearts may destroy them before the specters get the chance.
What a movie Spontaneous ended up being. It’s one of those films that you feel couldn’t possibly live up to the hype after months of online praise, and yet still does with flying colors. Or, in this case, with flying body parts. While in their senior year, an entire senior high school class begins to spontaneously combust at random. There’s no rhyme or reason to who explodes at any given time, and the government can’t find out how to solve the problem. All the while, these kids are just trying to (literally) survive high school. If that kinda feels like a metaphor for the whole school shooting thing, that’s because it’s exactly what it is.
Katherine Longford’s performance as Mara manages to elevate the already exceptional material even further. The grief of her performance is palpable as she suffers through her losses and the ever-present survivor’s guilt. The feeling of never knowing whether or not someone you love is going to randomly explode is presented more tangibly than should be possible in this one.
2. One Night in Miami...
I am a girl of simple tastes. I typically lean toward action and horror films because I like what I’m watching to be a spectacle. I mention this because I want to make it clear that films that take place largely in one setting – and a small one at that – are a hard sell for me. So, you can imagine my surprise when I found myself utterly floored by Regina King’s incredible One Night in Miami…
The scene is simple: Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) hole themselves up in Malcolm’s hotel room for the night to celebrate Cassius’ win earlier in the evening. What unfolds is layer after layer of conversation, ranging from faith to their respective responsibilities to the Black community, and their respective dreams. Of everything it does well, One Night in Miami… masterfully illustrates the complex relationship of the Black community with Malcolm X, and how activism can vary from person to person. It felt like every scene I was whispering one of the four actor’s names in reverence. Hodge’s “we're not anyone's weapons, man” knocked me all the way on my ass.
1. Saint Frances
Saint Frances is the type of film that you don’t know that you need until it’s in your lap. When we hear “there’s no other story like this one,” we often encourage whoever’s saying it to watch more movies. But, let me assure you: there’s no other story like this one.
The film is about so many things, and yet can be boiled down to just one: being a woman. It’s about all the ways we’re not taught about our bodies, and how we’re expected to chase it all, but also expected to be fulfilled exclusively by motherhood. Then it’s about how there’s no right way to be a woman, and whatever you are fulfilled by is what’s best for you and that’s the only thing that should matter. So many critical talking points are touched on throughout the film’s runtime, yet somehow none of them are undervalued or used as some kind of lady-PSA.
Kelly O’Sullivan’s Bridget perfectly embodies what it’s like to be the modern millennial woman in her thirties, while young Romana Edith Williams steals the show as Frances. So many beautiful things spark from an accidental pregnancy-turned-very-intentional-abortion in this breathtaking story about womanhood. It’s absolutely perfect, and its release got kind of botched because of COVID. So, if this list inspires you to check out just one film, I very much hope that you make it this one.
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