In a year that others are trying to write off for the lack of big studio releases, 2020 was actually an excellent opportunity to showcase smaller films on the larger more communal stage of streaming platforms. Get ready to get infected with indie films, genre films, stoic dramas, teen comedies and cosmic horror – starting with a Best of the Year that shocked me…
The Wolf of Snow Hollow (Dir. Jim Cummings) – There is no rule, only pretention, that says the best movie of the year has to be an overly long, melodramatic culturally significant, historically important period piece – sometimes it can be a tight 80 minute, perfectly calibrated, smartly scripted genre work that comes together just right. Jim Cummings’ (Thunder Road) sophomore film is an inventive, original take on the werewolf film, a slapstick comedy, a small town police procedural and a moody character-unravelling piece wrapped into one genre blended cocktail (not unlike last year’s Parasite). It’s stylish, smart and laugh out loud funny with a dry deadpan eye for local paranoia and violence. With many movies this year, I felt like they were biding time until some third act explanation that would reveal what was going on. Snow Hollow I was into from the very beginning and was ok with where it went. It was the only movie I saw this year that I immediately wanted to see again, look into the filmmaker and tell everyone else to see. That visceral reaction comes along rarely. It may not be perfect, but it was my favorite.
Color Out of Space (Dir. Richard Stanley) – The s triumphant return of Richard Stanley after 30 years in self-imposed exile (after being fired from the mad set of The Island of Dr. Moreau) brings us a deeply satisfying adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s unfilmable cosmic horror story, an appropriately cast Nicholas Cage, some horrific body horror and beautiful visuals. Stanley has crafted an old fashioned, wind-blown dark-and-stormy night creature feature here. A B-movie with A-talent.
Shirley (Dir. Josephine Decker) – How clever is Shirley? It’s a biography of horror author Shirley Jackson powered by an Oscar-snubbed Elizabeth Moss, wrapped in a fictional story of madness shot and crafted like one of Jackson’s own horror stories. If Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf was directed by Darren Aronofsky it would look like Decker’s wonderfully twisted film.
Promising Young Woman (Dir. Emerald Fennell) – A lot of post-Weinstein movies about female disenfranchisement are angry, but Promising Young Woman is angry and stylish and smarter than most. A unique spin on the revenge movie with a deliberately ironic teen movie aesthetic and a true jaw-dropper of a third act. Also shocking is that a movie this confident and risk-taking is Emerald Fennell’s first. It is a knockout with a knockout lead performance from Carey Mulligan.
The Invisible Man (Dir. Leigh Whannell) – A great studio thriller and an even better remake, Saw writer Leigh Whannell updates the Universal monster maniac for our digital age and overlays it on top of a story of domestic abuse and PTSD until it is barely recognizable as a remake. Elizabeth Moss stole 2020. It’s thrilling, unnerving and fun.
The Lodge (Dir. Severine Fiala and Veronika Franz) – A chilling psychological horror film from the duo that brought us Goodnight Mommy. It’s a subtle, atmospheric, slow-burn, ice-cold journey into madness with some nasty kids and a blended family from hell. The Lodge knocks out what might be the most wonderfully dark endings of the year.
The Call (Dir. Chung-Hyun Lee) – An unlikely remake, this South Korean time-travel serial killer movie is a gripping, stylish, high concept cat-and-mouse film packed with more surprises and ideas that 5 Hollywood films. I was in for every single crazy new reveal. This movie is a blast and a half.
The Assistant (Dir. Kitty Green) – A cinematic statement of a debut by Kitty Green, The Assistant is the kind of low-key, deliberately barren visual essay that Chantel Ackerman might have made in the 70s transported to post-Harvey Weinstein Hollywood – inside the clerical office of a very unglamorous New York office. Green’s hands-off approach is just right for the material considering how easily the Hollywood version would have come off disingenuous and sensational (cough, Bombshell, cough).
Spontaneous (Brian Duffield) / Soul (Dir. Peter Doctor and Kemp Powers)
We’ve seen witty urbane teen comedies before, but none about those witty urbane teens spontaneously combusting. First time filmmaker Brian Duffield’s smart, sweet, bloody comedy calls back to a time when movies were less agenda-pushing and more clever. Yes, Spontaneous is a school shooting metaphor, but it’s more a life-affirming love story for a romantic guy and an angry girl who find each other in a time of life-threatening uncertainty.
Peter Doctor has always been behind some of the more cerebral (Inside Out) and adult (Up) Pixar films, Soul rivals Ratatoullie as their movie probably least appealing to kids. A beautifully animated piece of work with a distinctly different score by Trent Reznor, Pixar’s take on the afterlife (and pre-life) would itself make a worthy addition to their library, but they can never settle for easy, instead wrapping Soul around a celebration of soul music, the life story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a teacher who feels he wasted his life until it was too late.
Both films in this tie are very different, but approach death in a way that is about living, squeezing the most out of it you possibly can, on our very short time on this planet, instead of just the avoidance of that death. Instead of letting your soul in Soul dry up into a wasteland or hide in your bedroom and let life pass you by in Spontanous. It couldn’t be more relevant.
Possessor (Dir. Brandon Chronenberg) – Digging through a level of practical violence and bloodletting I thought movies had forgotten, Chronenberg’s satirical sci-fi assassin movie is thoughtful, shocking and a uniquely ambiguous character piece for Andrea Risenborough. A wonderful welcome call-back for fans of realistic, technophobic retro 70s cinema.
Honorable Mentions: Sputnik, Swallow, The Vast of Night, Another Round, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, The Trip to Greece, The Gentleman, Save Yourselves!, Nobody Sleeps in the Woods Tonight, Dick Johnson is Dead.
Best 2019 Catch-Up Films:
Little Women (Dir. Greta Gerwig) – Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic is practically perfect in every way. A cuddle-up-by-the-fire Christmas movie where every frame is a painting and each character is drawn uniquely all the way through. Florence Pugh is particularly good in her older and younger selves that are so different they are almost two different characters. Gerwig even adds a meta-touch to deal reconcile the film with long-held stories of publishers forcing Alcott to compromise her stories. It’s a beautiful, warm modern classic.
The Lighthouse (Dir. Robert Eggers) – Shot in black and white, in 4:3 and absolutely bonkers, Eggers’ follow up to The Witch is an, I would say better, film so brining with coastal claustrophobic atmosphere it practically reaks like sea water. With a starving Robert Pattinson going up against a sea captain caricature Willem Dafoe, it’s a hell of a ride. A movie to rival The Lodge for the year’s most wonderfully f**ked up ending.
The Plagues of Breslau, Fantasy Island (2020), The Lovebirds, Little Monsters (2019), The Witches (2020), The Hunt, Hillbilly Elegy.