From the Archives: Top 15 Films of 2020

From the Archives: Top 15 Films of 2020

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

This was a weird year, but the movies have been pretty fantastic if you ask me. And since you’ve clicked on this lovely article here, I’m going to take that as you asking me. What follows is now your fault. I don’t make the rules.

A few caveats before I get started:

  • I don’t care whether it was just a festival release and doesn’t technically get released until 2021. If it’s new and I saw it in 2020, it is eligible.

  • Objectivity has no place in film criticism. Full stop. These are my favorites, not yours. So if you don’t see something on my list, put it on yours! I’d love to read it!

  • The movies in my list were selected because I enjoyed watching them, and they have stuck with me in the time since watching them. Big credit to movies that felt like something new was being done.

  • This list honestly changes by the minute, so you’re really only getting my list for this very moment in time. It’ll probably be different tomorrow, and that’s fine because movies are pretend.

  • Twin Peaks: The Return is a Christmas movie. Try to stop me. You can’t.

  • A year out and there have still been no Joker-inspired mass shootings, just mass-assertions by Film Twitter that there would absolutely be one, if not many. Just wanted to take one last jab at you before letting you all off the hook in 2021. Go ahead, be embarrassed. You’ve earned it.

Without further ado, I present to you MY TOP FIFTEEN MOVIES OF 2020! HUZZAAAAAH!

Wait, wait, wait. Before I get to my list, let me drop a single short film on you that blew my mind:

I Love Your Guts (dir. David Janove)

A night at the drive through window of a fast food joint gets very bloody very quickly when a drunken asshole tries to attack the two teenaged girls working the late shift. Unfortunately for the attacker, our leading ladies have a stronger bond than he could have ever expected. Funny, intense, and extremely violent, this is the sort of high energy filmmaking I just love to see. Very well done!

Okay okay, on to the list!

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15. Random Acts of Violence (dir. Jay Baruchel)

I love a good slasher, and Random Acts of Violence delivers on that front (the stabbings in this are BRUTAL), but it also delivers so much more. While slashers of recent years usually take a meta approach, and those of yesteryear are typically more interested in dishing out creative carnage, this mean-spirited piece of insanity ties into its themes the moral quandary that comes with enjoying true crime media. Namely that in order to make a true crime podcast/book/movie, or in this case, a comic book, one must make peace with the fact that tragedy is the primary ingredient.

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14. Butt Boy (dir. Tyler Cornack)

Butt Boy tells the touching story of a guy who can hide unimaginably large things inside of his rectum, and of the cop sent to investigate when a child goes missing (you can guess where said child went). This absurd concept is played with a completely straight face by everyone involved, with no winks or nods even in a tonal sense. It’s brilliant. The third act takes place entirely inside the main character’s asshole, and if you can’t understand why that alone is enough to place this on my list, then I just don’t know what to tell you.

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13. True History of the Kelly Gang (dir. Justin Kurzel)

Kurzel is one of the most exciting voices in cinema today. His breakout flick, The Snowtown Murders, haunts me to this day, years after watching it on a lark, and his latest has affected me just the same. This alt-history crime thriller tells a “true” tale of legendary bushranger Ned Kelly as he and his titular gang of not-so-merry men run from law enforcement during the late 19th century. With an ambiguously queer, wildly intense central performance from George MacKay, and a host of incredible in-camera visual effects, this is Kurzel’s most interesting, complex work yet. I left this one in a cold sweat. Rock & roll cinema right here.

12. Capone (dir. Josh Trank)

Josh Trank, who entered director jail after his much maligned (but actually kinda cool) Fantastic Four movie, busted out with a vengeance with Capone, his gangster flick to end all gangster flicks. Inead of showing reverence for the prohibition-era criminal, as so many mob pictures often do with their subjects, he instead demythologizes the one we call “Scarface” by depicting him at the end of his life. Diaper-clad and syphilitic to the point of insanity, this is the kind of role that Tom Hardy, master of unnecessary voices as incredible creative choices, revels in. With his trademark cigar replaced by a much safer carrot, and everyone around him advised to just let him be, Al Capone is given nothing but time to reminisce on his life of crime, complete with hallucinations that might as well be real in his declining mental state. This movie is filled with farts. Sweet, stinky, dramatic farts. A few poopies too.

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11. The Old Man Movie aka The Old Man: The Movie (dir. Oskar Lehemaa & Mika Mägi)

I typically don’t like to include animated films on my end of year lists. I don’t know why, since I do indeed enjoy animation, but for some reason they never seem to stick. When I caught The Old Man Movie at Fantastic Fest during the fall, I immediately knew it would be on my list. I was reminded of A Town Called Panic in the way this movie uses its animation to do things that no actor ever could, and to sell me on plot ideas that would never fly when dealing in the real world. But The Old Man Movie is A Town Called Panic times a million, at least in terms of pure mania. Here’s the skinny: a group of kids go to visit the titular Old Man in his village for the summer, but when his prize dairy cow escapes without having been milked, the group goes on a road trip to retrieve it before it explodes, resulting in what’s sure to be a milky, creamy apocalypse. This movie is INSANE. It’s also hilarious, and has some of the best stop motion animation I’ve ever seen.

10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Charlie Kaufman is a genius, and his adaptation of Iain Reid’s distinctly un-cinematic novel is proof. Having read the novel in the days leading up to the film’s release, I was able to add to its value by seeing it as a massive feat of adaptation (from the man who made Adaptation). But the novelty is only a bonus. The almost impenetrable nature of the plot is a feature, not a bug, once you understand what is being explored here. What is being explored here? Well, the list of what isn’t being explored is much shorter, but the arena where this most resonated with me is the idea that we can never really know anyone. Not 100% at least. By taking the narrative tool of an unreliable narrator and turning it on its ear (I won’t dare say how), I’m Thinking of Ending Things breaks the mold of just every genre it dabbles in, while showing off the talents of the two best Jess(i)es this side of Uncle.

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9. The Assistant (dir. Kitty Green)

For a movie to convey such a powerful message in such a minimalist way is the finest sort of movie magic. So many of the directorial choices made here would sound chintzy in description, but in action, they play perfectly. For example, we never see the villain in this “day in the life” story of an assistant to a Hollywood bigwig, but his oppressive presence is felt all the same. When our protagonist, played here with subdued brilliance by Julia Garner, is in the same shot as her superiors, we don’t ever see their faces. You might not even notice it until after the fact, which speaks to Green’s talents as a visual filmmaker. The Assistant shows us that sometimes, the most insidious oppression is hard to detect, but is just as effective at breaking down the wills of good people than even the most egregious displays of hatred. Everyone should watch this movie. It will be on the test.

8. I’m Your Woman (dir. Julia Hart)

Imagine a “gangsters on the run” thriller, but this time it’s from the point of view of said gangster’s wife. That’s what you get with I’m Your Woman. In it, Rachel Brosnahan plays Jean, a mob wife forced to go on the run when her criminal husband (who recently brought home a purchased/stolen baby for keeps) disappears. Car chases, intense interrogations, double crosses, and moments of shocking violence come calling at a pace that simply does not let up. Hart and cowriter Jordan Horowitz build their characters through action and dialogue – never through exposition – resulting in a roster of fully-fleshed out human beings that are extremely easy to care about. It’s everything you love about 1970s crime thrillers, only this time from a fresh new lens. I don’t know how I survived watching this movie, as I held my breath almost the entire time.

7. Fatman (dir. Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms) 

I love a huge concept made small and executed well, and Fatman is a perfect example of this. Mel Gibson plays the titular character, who you may know as Santa Claus, as he defends his North Pole compound from a hitman sent to kill him on behalf of a naughty rich boy who received coal for Christmas. In perfect old West fashion (extremely old north?) this leads to a showdown of epic proportions. Gibson crushes it as a post-Santa Santa, but Walton Goggins, as our violently obsessed hitman, steals the show. This silly concept is executed with gravitas and humor, both of which emanate from surprisingly thorough characters. The final act is downright masterful. Fatman is one of the most enjoyable movie experiences I’ve had all year, and one of the weirdest to boot. One line in particular is oft repeated in my household.

6. Murder Death Koreatown (dir. ?????)

I love found footage horror and I love true crime and I love movies designed to shake up their audience. For these reasons, and many others, Murder Death Koreatown absolutely had to be on my end of year list. Based around the fallout from a real-life murder, the entirety of the film is shot on our protagonist’s cell phone (and not in that super sharp Soderberghian way). After a murder occurs near his his home, our nameless surrogate hits the streets to find out more information about it. To him, certain aspects just don’t add up, and after a while, it looks like the crime might be indicative of a larger conspiracy…or it’s nothing at all and our narrator is just losing his damn mind. Maybe it’s both. Who knows? Here’s the crazy part: the filmmakers are so deeply committed to the bit that the line between reality and fiction is as blurred as I’ve seen it (most people in the film are not actors, and the murder is 100% real). So much so that when I ordered the blu-ray, it arrived in a package with the return address redacted. When I spoke with the filmmaker via e-mail, they referred to themselves only as “MDK.”

I cannot promise you will enjoy this movie, but I can promise that you will be left deeply frightened, and you will never, ever forget it.

5. The Rental (dir. Mike Pancake)

What Psycho did for showers and Jaws did for the beach, The Rental aims to do with AirBnb properties. What starts as a seemingly typical mumblegore entry (it’s co-written by Joe Swanberg) takes turn after turn before becoming one of the most effective slashers of recent years. The less you know, the better, so I’ll just leave it at that. The cast is perfect, the story is wildly engaging, and the final 30 minutes are absolutely terrifying. There’s some imagery here that, if it weren’t in a one-off thriller, could sustain a slasher franchise almost by itself. I’m not saying I want a sequel, but if there is one, I know exactly how to do it. Pancake can come back to direct. I stan Pancake.

Stancake.

Please note that I plan to retire “stan” in 2021, but referring to Dave Franco as “Mike Pancake” is something I will do forever.

4. Da 5 Bloods (dir. Spike Lee)

I’ve seen so many movies about the Vietnam War, but none have been told from the point of view of Black soldiers who, alongside their duties at war, are also existing amidst the civil rights movement of the time. Moving back and forth between the war itself and the years since, Lee is able to crystallize the way that the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, and the lived experience of boots-on-the-ground soldiers intersect, and then use it to fuel one of the most compelling jungle adventure movies since Sorcerer. The decision to have the present day actors also play their younger selves would seem like a distracting choice on theory, but in practice it puts all the digital de-aging we’ve seen over the past few years to shame. Spike Lee clearly respects his audience and the choice consistently pays off. So many movies about race end up being so didactic that those who could stand to learn the lessons espoused within might be dissuaded from giving it a fair shake, but Lee has found a way to sneak past the defensive barrier of latent bigots and smack everyone in the face with some truth. The one-two punch of this and BlackKklansman is something we as an audience are extremely lucky to have.

Delroy Lindo gives the performance of a lifetime. It’s the best performance of the year and it’s not even close. If he doesn’t win the Oscar, then the Oscars will have lost whatever meaning they had left. I am still available to host the ceremony, however. I have a bot set to delete any tweets that are more than two weeks old, so I should be clean in time for the show.

3. The Killing of Two Lovers (dir. Robert Machoian)

You know when you’re boiling pasta and you have to keep an eye on it so it doesn’t boil over, but you look away for like half a second and that’s the exact second it starts boiling over so you have to panic and shut off the burner real quick but in your panicked state you forget which way to turn the knob? The Killing of Two Lovers is that exact feeling for 85 minutes straight. The story is simple: David and Niki got married and started having kids right out of high school. They’re a cute little family of six, but currently, David and Niki are on a trial separation. It’s a separation with an eye toward reunion, but in the meantime, Niki has started dating someone else. Not an easy situation for anyone, and especially difficult when there are kids involved. Intense and honest performances give this relentless, atypical drama its narrative thrust, leading to more than a few shocked gasps.The two lovers referenced in the title are clearly my nerves and my other nerves.

2. Color Out of Space (dir. Richard Stanley)

Toward the end of this movie, when everything is off the rails and the Lovecraftian horrors are in full form, I involuntarily thrust both of my arms toward the sky and held a sustained “AHHHHHH” until the credits rolled. I have been chasing this experience ever since. One thing that connects most Lovecraft stories is a normal person bearing witness to a realm of monsters so beyond the capacity of the human mind, that to note it for even a second drives them insane. This has never been captured accurately on film, despite many valiant efforts. Not until now. Add to that a role Nicolas Cage may have been designed in a lab just to perform, as well as a clever way of subverting the racism espoused by Lovecraft, and there’s simply nothing quite like Color Out of Space. There’s body horror, cosmic horror, and familial horror. There are monsters, mayhem, and parallel universes. This movie is absolutely bonkers in the best of ways, and when it ended I felt as if I, too, had lost my heckin’ mind.

1. Possessor (dir. Brandon Cronenberg)

My favorite sci-fi has always contained the following elements: predictive technology, universal cautionary warnings hidden behind a futuristic tale, and weird, psychosexual elements designed to freak out the squares. Possessor delivers all of these in droves and effortlessly so. This is a GREAT film, and it’s one I suspect we’ll be looking back on in a few years and realizing that it influenced the look and feel of countless genre pictures in its wake. Having watched this one three times now, I keep discovering new elements hidden in its ambiguities, and as these revelations open up new interpretations of the plot, the many thematic threads being toyed with only become clearer and more potent. Both Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott give aggressive, almost vulgar performances (I mean that in the best of ways) while Cronenberg taps into his father’s bag of tricks delivering some deeply effective body horror and violence, both of which are depicted in ways that could be considered high art. The blood in this movie looks soooooo good. It’s perfectly revolting.

And really, if the technology existed to import someone’s consciousness into someone else’s body, wouldn’t corporate espionage/assassination be the first thing it gets applied to?

Honorable mentions:

Night of The Kings, Gunda, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, Dinner in America, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, David Byrne’s American Utopia, The Way Back, The Hunt, Come to Daddy, 8:46, Tesla, Host, The Invisible Man, Tenet, The Nest, Bad Trip, White Lie.

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