Gap year: Best films of 2020

I had a hard time figuring out what to give the top spot to this year, but not because of the great selection.

It probably didn’t help that this blog missed out on all the big movies. No blockbusters like “Tenet” or “Wonder Woman 1984.” No art pictures like “Nomadland” or Hollywood candy like “Mank.” Not even genre-as-message-picture “Promising Young Woman.” But if I had seen one or all of those, I’m not sure if my opinion would have changed. Nossir, there was little I was excited to see on screen in 2020.

Of course, I did watch a few films, and I found a couple to comfortably call the best . As per usual, those are at the start and the worst are at the finish line. Feel free to let me know where I missed out, where I got it right and, more likley, where I’m horribly wrong. See you there, tonstant weader.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things: If the purpose of a movie is to produce conversation, then perhaps “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” was the best movie of 2020. This tale of a young woman meeting her boyfriend’s parents for the first time and feeling that things aren’t quite right is a psychological drama/thriller by way of both Kubrick’s “The Shining” and Aronofsky’s “Mother!” Maybe a little of “Ghost Story” too, or maybe all of them. Maybe none of them. It ain’t for everyone, but the curious will find a talented cast reading intelligent dialogue to handsome visuals. It’s a little long, the pacing is slow and the ending is admittedly formal. The narrative is broken too, but that’s kind of the point. The naivete of romance, the tragedy of aging, letting go of the past or fantasizing about a future that could have been… I’m not even sure I liked it, but this feels like one that’s worth a discussion.

The Call: Of course, if the purpose of a movie is primarily entertainment, then “The Call” was the best movie of 2020. Its physics all fall apart if you think about it too much, but as a stylish thrill ride, this time travel murder flick is simply great. Clean photography, interesting visual effects and a good sense of place make this more than worth a watch. Also, and I won’t say too much – not that genre fans won’t figure out the twists anyway – Jeon Jong-seo’s performance was perhaps the most enjoyable in a thriller this year.

The Vast of the Night: And if the purpose of a movie is just to move, then perhaps “The Vast of the Night” was the best film of 2020. It certianly might be the most underrated. Everything about it moves well: its clever script, its nimble photography, its young cast. It does get a bit murky at the climax, but what doesn’t? A low key retro sci fi thriller by way of “Coast to Coast AM” for all the radio fans out there. I dig the Southwestern digs.

Gretel & Hansel: From the opening, this film blazes by at a breakneck pace. That sounds like a compliment, but it’s not. The film can’t decide if it’s dark fantasy, psychological horror or black comedy. It finally takes a breath in the second act, which is coincidentally when it appears to settle primarily on psychological horror and when it starts to become actually engaging. Even if the film can’t escape its first third, the photography and color palette are practically peerless – it is Osgood Perkins in the director’s chair after all, and he might be effectively riffing on “The Witch” – the script has some clever lines, I like the performances and anachronisms, and there are some interesting and atmospheric images. Mabye it’s a little high on this list, but I’d watch it again, if only for the colors, dude.

Enola Holmes: Too many endings, but not too bad getting there. A period crime adventure thingy, it’s handsomely produced, sports a solid cast with good chemistry, and is built on a script that’s pretty aware of what it can and can’t do. There are some loose ends, but I assume Netflix is figuring on a sequel. Most of the thrills, laughs and logic feel earned. I don’t understand the necessity of the choppier edits and multimedia bits, but someone must have thought they were a good idea. I also don’t understand the constant fourth wall breaking, but at least it’s consistent. Were we going for Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” or “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother”? I suppose it’s its own beast.

The Lodge: The slow-burning and wintry look and feel of this psychological horror flick are just right, but the script is not quite there. It’s a few minutes too long, for one. It’s also kind of reductionist – cults are bad and crazy people go crazy – so it never feels like it has a lot to say. The performances accordingly lack depth, but they’re perfect for what they set out to accomplish. It’s pulp, but it’s pretty pulp. Just stick to those detail shots. You’ll do fine.

Sputnik: A political science fiction thriller, if you will, that is surprisingly upbeat… for a Russian movie anyway. Well paced, well lit and photographed, and convincingly acted for the most part. Kinda goofs up with the motivations in the last 10 minutes or so, but overall an atmospheric and interesting spin on the “Alien” narrative.

Goblin Slayer Goblin’s Crown: It’s basically a long episode of the TV series, so you get what you pay for. Do you want to see a violent cartoon about a man in D&D armor promising a young woman with PTSD that he’ll kill all the goblins everywhere forever, and it’s somehow ridiculous, touching, tragic and badass at the same time? Here’s your movie. Good music. Acceptable animation.

Invisible Man: Solid scares and special effects, and a haunting performance from Elisabeth Moss gird this psychological thriller. The updated spin on the H. G. Welles novel is interesting, but credibility is stretched from the start and pretty much snapped beyond repair by the climax. I would have preferred something subtler. Still, crisp photography and a moody color palette carry the tense and often emotional narrative along.

Underwater: Sweet, another “Alien” clone. I mean that sincerely, by the way. This is the kind of thriller I like: controlled and claustrophobic, with tons of well photographed detail shots to break up the action. Pros include organic dialogue, decent performances, excellent lighting, fine monster design and natural suspense. Cons include some unnecessary narration and some generic music. It never quite has the oomph it needs to pull it out of the “bargain pulp” category, but it’s still a bargain.

Palm Springs: Probably the biggest movie I got around to watching. Harmless fantasy-comedy with an obvious “Groundhog Day” feel. Deadpan performances and an irreverent script keep the first half fun, then it gets a little slow with sentimentality. Despite the irreverence, it’s just a romantic comedy with weird fiction dressing after all. It glances at its existential themes rather than examines them, and some of its conclusions feel unearned, but there’s enough fantasist flourish to make it worth a watch.

Tesla: Sort of a metanarrative biopic of the titular inventor. The shot composition is occasionally awkward but more often interesting, and the sets are moodily lit and dressed (think Peter Greenaway lite). Great performances across the board. Too bad the script, while intriguingly constructed, fails to ever settle on a central point.

The Burnt Orange Heresy: This is categorized as an art crime thriller. It is a crime thriller, but only in the second half, and even then the thrills aren’t effectively felt until the last 20 minutes or thereabouts. It has the art thing right off the bat though, so you can look forward to that. Pretty in a workmanlike sort of way, well acted by a talented cast (with a quality surprise performance by Mick Jagger). The literate script probably worked better in the spacious format of the novel.

The Devil All the Time: An autumn stained backwoods noir. The moody landscape is sensitively photographed and populated by well performed grotesques straight outta Flannery O’Connor. A powerhouse cast plays with the layered narrative, which touches on faith, hubris, humanity, responsibility and destiny. Sometimes those layers threaten to devolve into melodrama, but for the most part the ensemble keeps things interesting. In fact, this might be a more interesting film than a good one, but we need a little interest here and there.

Open 24 Hours: The script is cliche – pulpy and playing with some interesting psychological thriller concepts at best, and tolerably trashy at worst – the score is routine and the special effects are just passable, but they’re married to some unexpectedly solid performances, great sets and locations, and wonderful editing and shot composition. Too bad it overdoes things in the climax.

Debt Collectors: A familiar but fun comedy crime thriller about beating people in the head and taking their nice things legally. It’s a sequel, and nothing’s as fresh the second time around I suppose. Or maybe I just miss Tony Todd. Still, the film’s promises are simple, and it delivers on them.

The Babysitter Killer Queen: Another sequel that’s more of the same, in this case more over-the-top splatter, more neon and more hyperactive comedy-horror. The cast is as attractive and game as ever, but the goofiness threatens to crush the high concept this time around.

Rogue: Who woulda thunk a movie featuring Megan Fox as a mercenary with flawless makeup fighting CGI lions in sub-Saharan Africa would be kinda silly? The film could have tried to meet me halfway. The script, by director M. J. Bassett and actress Isabelle Bassett (correct, related), is as uneven as a dirt road, with the tone changing from cracking bad one-liners one minute to grimdark action the next. There’s even a moral at the end. The cast is a mixed bag at best, with the villains probably having more fun. If you do watch it, stick around for the occasionally interesting camera angles and the well designed burning farm set.

Rebecca: Director Ben Wheatley tackling the same topic as Hitchcock seems like a great idea, and the resulting psychological drama looks good, but it does not move right. I’m not sure why, but I have a suspicion it’s the editing (normally Amy Jump handles that for Wheatley, but she’s absent on this production). Or one could blame the script, which cannot quite merge romance and thrills. It’s not the music though, by the ever reliable Clint Mansell. But don’t be a goof like me and think that one song is by Fairport Convention. It’s Pentangle.

Shirley: Yet another weird fiction biopic, this time of psychological thriller writer Shirley Jackson. Well performed – it’s Elisabeth Moss again, so no duh – but muddled. Between the poorly scripted characters and the murky photography, it’s hard to care about much on screen.

Dolittle: What a cast. What a pointless movie. This fantasy-adventure-comedy-creature feature-kitchen sink flick is not the worst, despite the box office and reviews, but anything that has a farting dragon as a plot point is not going to make a short list of the best. Even the natural charisma of both Robert Downey Jr. and Antonio Banderas can’t make this truly watchable. Still, it has the distinction of being the last movie I watched in a theater.

The Last Thing He Wanted: A jumbled and ultimately dull political thriller. Anne Hathaway effectively inhabits her thankless role (the cast as a whole is the film’s best feature), but even she can’t make me care about her character or comprehend her situation. Maybe the book was better.

The Dinner Party: Definitely rough around the edges. This feels very influenced by 2019’s “Ready or Not,” but it lacks that film’s solid sense of humor. It wants to be weird and atmospheric, but the slow narrative and endless outside references leave it overstuffed, draggy and divorced from reality. It doesn’t help that the actors err on the side of over-the-top. It’s about theater people, so maybe it’s supposed to be theatrical?

Homewrecker: A very indie (the cast and crew are a little incestuous) dark comedy thriller. It fails pretty squarely as a thriller, but it might do a little better as a dark comedy. There are a few chuckles spread throughout the brief runtime, the ending has potential and the two leads (Precious Chong and Alex Essoe) do the best they can with a script that grows increasingly silly. However, the movie as a whole is surprisingly… normal. It should have been weirder if it wanted to stand out.

Monstrous: Imagine a psychological thriller with a missing person plot that takes place in bigfoot country and milks its setting for atmosphere. “Monstrous” is not that movie. We get a Sasquatch-vision roadside murder in the first scene, and from then on an awkward lesbian road trip thriller with a violent climax that is, oddly enough, trying to be tender. In case you couldn’t tell, the screenplay, by lead actress Anna Shields, is pretty awkward as well. The pacing is nuts, and the characters don’t behave like people, although maybe they behave like bigfoots. At least the indie rock song selection is pleasant and the photography is nice if you like rural East Coast.

Mrs. Serial Killer: Sometimes my betters make snap statements, like when they say “Mrs. Serial Killer” was the worst film of 2020. For me, that’s not a warning. It’s a challenge. After all, who’s the expert here? Well, they might have been right. Interesting lighting and photography can’t save a ridiculously scripted, strangely acted, uncomfortably blocked and poorly edited thriller that never takes full advantage of its own high concept. And does Jacqueline Fernandez really seem like she’s be both married to and murderously devoted to Manoj Bajpayee? I guess that’s just me being petty.

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