As 2020 comes to a close, it brings with it the gift of hindsight, which I have decided to use to play cinematic matchmaker—instead of recommending merely ten movies, here are 20. Pairing some of the best releases of the year together via a list of double-features allows us to reflect on how 2020 left its mark on the medium. It’s admittedly heavy on the horror—that’s fitting, though, in a year that saw its own share of scares, but also saw the genre strive as streaming replaced a trip to the theaters. And while we would have loved to see these on the big screen, as movies found their way into our homes it’s nice to think it made for not an isolating experience, but an intimate one.
The Assistant (Dir. Kitty Green) +
Sound of Metal (Dir. Darius Marder)
The Assistant, released in January, and Sound of Metal, released in December, act as interesting bookends to a year that began like any other before quickly resembling none other. Pushed inside because of the pandemic, life became more insular. Or did it? Take The Assistant, which sees Jane (Julia Garner), who, while not confined to her home, spends nearly all her time in one place: the office. Sound familiar? Her job is her entire world save a single phone call to her family. Quiet anger hums through the sonically subdued film as Jane struggles in a toxic work environment. Similarly, Sound of Metal, another purposely quiet film, follows Ruben’s (Riz Ahmed) initially isolating journey from a tight-knit metal scene to a rural community for recovering addicts who are deaf, after he loses his hearing. What he longs for most is for things to return to normal (again, sound familiar?), but in the film, as in life, that’s not possible. Fittingly, both characters are left in a state of authentic ambiguity. Watch these as a meditation on the passing of time, the many faces of staying in place, and the pursuit of happier and healthier endeavors in the new year.
Gretel & Hansel (Dir. Oz Perkins) +
Shirley (Dir. Josephine Decker)
This is a fever-dream double feature, as both films freshly stylize familiar tales of terror. Gretel & Hansel is a female-first title because it fleshes out Gretel’s (Sophia Lillis) character by making her a natural witch. She has to reconcile this innate gift in this visually gruesome and beautiful bildungsroman that gives the classic story new life. Meanwhile, Shirley is a look at the very morose Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), presented in a way that mimics the famed fiction author’s horror writing. Covered in the same heady haze, watch these when you want to take a trip without leaving your couch.
Come to Daddy (Dir. Ant Timpson) +
Blow the Man Down (Dir. Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy)
Brutal violence abounds in these coastal mysteries, but they’re not all show. While Come to Daddy leans more toward horror and Blow the Man Down toward drama, both have a dark comedic undertow that pulls viewers into their provocative talking points. In the former, Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) travels to a remote cabin to reconnect with his estranged father before an abrupt mid-plot twist. In the latter, the Connolly sisters, Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla (Sophie Lowe), uncover their small town’s darkest secrets after their mother dies. Watch these when you’re in the mood for a couple of murder movies with momentum.
The Lodge (Dir. Veronika Franz and
Severin Fiala) +
Vivarium (Dir. Lorcan Finnegan)
In The Lodge and Vivarium, there’s no escape. Perfectly paced, each film places viewers in purgatory along with the protagonists. As time stretches into a never-ending and eerily repetitive pattern in The Lodge, prospective stepmother Grace’s (Riley Keough) limits are tested during a solo retreat with her boyfriend’s children. Little does she know things are not what they seem. Vivarium‘s purgatory is more clear-cut, though that somehow doesn’t make it any less mysterious as couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are tasked with raising a random child. While these surrogate parents struggle, their respective wards strive or suffer based on the distinct dystopia they inhabit. Watch these when things seem stale and you feel stuck, to remind you it could be much, much worse.
Straight Up (Dir. James Sweeney) +
Buffaloed (Dir. Tanya Wexler)
Looking for fantastical yet authentic characters? These films have them. Straight Up is admittedly a more substantial movie than Buffaloed, but they work wonders as companion pieces. A dialogue-driven film that invites viewers to question the elastic definitions of love and sexuality as Rory (Katie Findlay) and Todd (James Sweeney) navigate “a love story without the thrill of copulation,” Straight Up is a relevant and resonant rom-com. This is the impressive result of writer-director Sweeney’s clear vision as carried out by competent actors. But Buffaloed isn’t far behind. More silly than soul-searching, it retains the same high energy as Straight Up. Together, they provide the sort of boost usually reserved for in-real-life experiences (remember those?). Buffaloed is also proof that Zoey Deutch can carry a film, especially when the lead role calls for a smartass slacker turned schemer (see also 2017’s Flower). Following Peg Dahl (Deutch) as she hatches a plan to escape her hometown of Buffalo, New York, by becoming a debt collector and waging war on the city’s debt-collecting kingpin, the movie is a fun “fuck you” to capitalism to boot. Watch these when you need a pick-me-up courtesy of challenging society’s most suffocating structures.
In a year that saw numerous vacation horror movies (The Lodge, The Rental, The Beach House, and so on), Spree and Freaky, two teen horror-comedies of the slasher variety, stuck to the inescapable horrors of high school. Spree is a joyride through the sinister side effects of social media as Kurt (Joe Keery), an amateur streamer looking to go viral, becomes a rideshare driver for the content. Freaky is The Hot Chick as horror and sees Millie (Kathryn Newton) and The Butcher (Vince Vaughn) swap bodies. Watch these when you want to relive your glory days with much more gore.
This next double-feature delves even further into the teenage experience. Castle in the Ground is a somber, if not sober, look at the bleak reality of the opioid epidemic that sees Henry’s (Alex Wolff) drug-fueled demise after his mother’s untimely death. While The Half of It might feel tame in comparison, it is just as genuine. It follows Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a smart but cash-strapped teen who agrees to write a love letter for a jock, only to end up becoming his friend and falling for his crush in the process. Watch these films when you need to feel something.
The titles alone point to the sort of call and response structure of this double feature. In each, the titular women snap out of submission, undergoing a powerful transformation after the misdeeds of men have fucked up their lives. A Good Woman Is Hard To Find follows the murder of Sarah’s (Sarah Bolger) husband in front of their son, pushing her into the role of the protagonist and protector, where she absolutely shines. That this multi-dimensional performance exists in a genre where the lead roles are usually reserved for men is a victory for the viewers as much as it is for the creators. And as if to say it’s getting easier to find a good woman (or more like good roles for women), in comes another slow burn with an ending that’s worth the wait. Set in the 1970s, I’m Your Woman sees Jean (Rachel Brosnahan) forced to go on the run with her infant son after her husband betrays his partners. Revitalizing the genre by expanding on a recognizable format to include a new perspective, these female-driven films have made a smart choice placing the women behind the wheel. Watch these when you’re up for a wild ride.
It’s exciting to see the titular Becky (Lulu Wilson) channel teen angst into exceedingly creative and increasingly cruel ways to fight back against a group of home invaders intent on fucking up her family vacation. Watching Wilson, a force to be reckoned with, play her character strong from the start and with a bit of a smirk is wholly compelling. Alone is like if Becky grew up to be Jessica (Jules Willcox), who has the same will to survive and ability to outsmart and outrun her tormentor in this fast-paced survival thriller. Watch these when you want to feel like a badass.
Both Possessor and Black Bear want to know what people are willing to sacrifice for the perfect performance. The first film follows elite agent Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), who works for a secretive organization that uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s consciousnesses. The second film follows Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a filmmaker and actor seeking solace from her tumultuous past at a cabin in the woods. Both are smart and ambitious cultural commentaries that run on a relentless tension as these women struggle to decide how far they’ll go for their jobs. Watch these when you want to grapple with your existence. v