FILM REVIEWS: THE BEST FILMS OF 2020
What a long strange trip it’s been…and I’m not talking about The Grateful Dead. I’m talking about the year 2020, or the year Covid-19 brought the entire planet to a screeching halt, or the great global dumpster fire…whichever you prefer. 2020 was in and of itself a horror movie in a lot of ways. Most of us experienced some form of hardship, whether that was losing your job, having a relationship implode, or even something as simple as your favorite restaurant closing…we’ve all experienced loss and grief in one form or another.
Another victim of the global pandemic was the film & television industry as a whole. Many productions were postponed or scrapped altogether until the world could find a way to continue safely…and we did. But for many productions, the damage was already done. I could list off a number of cinematic casualties, from CANDYMAN to TERRIFIER 2, but we all have a good idea of what we’ve lost. Most of the big studio productions will find a way to persevere, and a movie like CANDYMAN which was already 99% “in the can” will undoubtedly have its day in the sun, I’m more worried about the TERRIFIER 2’s of the world. The little indie passion projects that may never see the light of day due to the pandemic. There’s really no telling or tallying the countless independent projects that may have been lost. Frankly, we’re still in the middle of it all. Sure, there’s a vaccine or two, but it’s still unknown how life will look even 6 months from now. Will theatre’s come back at all? Will other streamers go the HBO Max route and forego theatrical presentations altogether? Who really knows? It’s an interesting time to say the least, but I don’t think anyone knows the answer to these questions with any degree of certainty.
Enough about the negative, because 2020 also brought us some exceptional offerings in the realm of horror cinema. As usual FEAR FOREVER is here to bring you our list of the best things we saw in 2020. And while the offerings may have been fewer and further between, there were still a number of standout films we’d like to share with you, just in case you missed them. So, here we go with my personal best of list for 2020…in no particular order. Let me preface by saying I do not work for Shudder, nor have I accepted any endorsements from Shudder. It just so happens that the streaming service was home to 3 of my top picks this time around.
The last film I saw in theaters, and the only big budget studio film on my list is THE INVISIBLE MAN. It’s a creepy and message driven thriller without being overly preachy. I credit this delicate high-wire balancing act to the genius of SAW scribe Leigh Whannel. Whannel has proven himself time and time again as one of the most talented horror filmmakers of the new generation. I happen to think he and James Wan will be spoken about in the same conversation as the John Carpenter‘s and Wes Craven’s of the world, but we can save that discussion/debate for another day.
Whannel’s take on the invisible man mythos takes a strong departure from the almost tongue in cheek humor almost every other iteration of the story follows. Whannel instead shifts his focus to the PTSD of an abusive relationship, and the scars of domestic abuse. Elisabeth Moss masterfully plays Cecilia Kass as the victim of one such relationship. She narrowly escapes the grip of her jilted ex-lover and brilliant physicist boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He’s gorgeous, rich, and insanely smart. He’s also controlling, abusive, and as we’ll soon learn…homicidal. Once Cecilia is able to leave (or escape) the relationship, Adrian fakes his death and decides he’s going to make Cecilia’s life a living hell. She goes into hiding, and relies on friends and family, but it isn’t long before he finds her.
The brilliance of this version relies on the fact that we know Cecilia’s history, and at first we still aren’t sure if we can trust her. Cecilia is gaslighted by her peers, and of course no one believes her (presumed) dead boyfriend is tormenting her from beyond the grave. But everyone in her orbit soon realizes that she was telling the truth, and that revelation is fatal for nearly everyone in his path. THE INVISIBLE MAN is a fun thrill ride, before you even consider the broader strokes Whannel is painting with. The film is at its core about an abused woman trying to exercise her demons from the past, while also struggling simply to be believed in a patriarchal society. As a cis gender male, I want to tread lightly here, but Whannel does not dilute his intent. This movie could be about any number of abusive relationships before the sci-fi/horror elements even come into play. It’s tragic, and playful at the same time. There’s a clear message here, but Whannel never beats us over the head with it. You’ll simply find yourself yelling “why doesn’t anyone believe her??” which is sadly a truth all too real for many survivors of domestic abuse.
The premise is simple enough, a group of friends decide to host a virtual seance to break up the monotony of quarantine, and to have a reason to socialize with one another. Everyone is asked to take the proceedings seriously, since they’re essentially partaking in the online equivalent of playing with a Ouija board. Of course one member of the group is not taking things seriously and unknowingly invites a malevolent force into the group. They’re warned by the woman conducting the seance, but inconsistent internet connections drop people in and out of the conversation, before we start seeing really bad things happen one by one. What started off as a funny group activity quickly takes a turn into some sinister territory.
We’re sort of along for the ride as an unwilling participant in the affair, as each member of the group is dispatched in increasingly gruesome fashion. Much of the carnage is left up to our imagination a la PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, however nowhere near as frustrating. We’re shown just enough to get your pulse up, and a few final reveals of the spirit are truly haunting. I admit that I jumped a few times, and HOST left me with a new understanding of what a feature film can be, both in terms of runtime and even a mostly static setting. It was frankly more intense than I was expecting. It’s true that this film takes place in a very specific time and place in our collective consciousness, so we’ll see how effective it is after the Zoom era ends. But for now, if you’re familiar with online video meetings…this one will rattle your cage.
In a sharp departure from the previous two films, here’s something a little different in SCARE ME. Another Shudder exclusive, this film was a hilarious examination of two talented storytellers trying to scare each other. This is the definition of a horror-comedy, because it’s hysterically funny until it starts to warp into something that starts to feel unsafe. The fun and games begin to lean into the dark side as it’s revealed over time that one of the storytellers is much more talented than the other.
Writer/Director/Star Josh Ruben plays aspiring writer Fred, as he heads out to a cabin in the woods to look for inspiration on his long gestated horror novel. The irony of the setting isn’t lost on our hero here, in fact he starts things off by scaring himself with the “what-ifs” of the cabin setting. He thinks he’s all alone until he runs into a fellow writer named Fanny (Aya Cash), also looking for inspiration. Fanny shows up to Fred’s cabin one night, and they start to tell each other competing horror stories. It becomes apparent that Fanny is WAY better at this than Fred. As this night starts to get a little more boozy, and then cocaine starts to flow, Fred becomes more and more unhinged at the realization that he may not be as talented as he first thought.
Fred’s behavior starts to show signs of jealous rage, but Fanny is no damsel in distress here. She’s confident, assertive, and a master of her craft….which upsets Fred even more. Now it becomes as if he’s got something to prove, but Fanny is soaking up the scenery like a sponge. Little does Fred know that Fanny is mining this awkward situation for her newest story, while Fred is slowly losing his mind. His inability to frighten her crescendos into a scary/funny third act that left me applauding. SCARE ME was just flat out one of my most enjoyable films of 2020.
I’ll admit that this one was a last minute addition to the list, but it was so damn good it had to be included here. Another absolutely stellar effort from cinema wunderkind Jim Cummings. Cummings once again writes, directs, and stars in one of the most innovative entries into the werewolf genre I’ve EVER seen. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this film may alter the trajectory of werewolf films from here on out. Cummings is an insanely talented multi-hyphenate artist that has a real knack for genre-blending. I first heard about Cummings with his 2016 short film THUNDER ROAD, which was later turned into a feature film. If you haven’t seen this brilliant short film, I urge you to watch THIS as soon as possible. It’s both hilariously funny, and tragically sad…somehow at the same time over the course of the 12 minute runtime. It was an explosive calling card for an emerging talent in 2016. Cummings this time around turns his genre blending to horror/comedy.
Cummings plays the de facto sheriff in the town of Snow Hollow, Utah after his father (Robert Forster) begins to slow down due to a heart condition. Forster is good at his job, but his health is in decline and it’s affecting his police work. Cummings seems to be the only other competent police officer in the town aside from his partner Julia (Riki Lindhome). When a series of horrifically grisly murders begin to take place, it isn’t long before the townsfolk start to believe that the murders are being committed by a werewolf. The murders all take place on a full moon, and the victims are all torn to shreds. To make matters worse, all the forensic data points to a grey wolf committing these atrocities. Cummings and his partner don’t buy it. It’s always a man, and there’s no such thing as a werewolf…right??
The film geniously plays with the concept of lycanthropy, in the face of toxic masculinity and small town politics. Cummings and his partner are capable and talented investigators, but they’re both dealing with demons of their own. Cummings is a recovering alcoholic, and these crimes are starting to push him back to the drink. As the murders become more frequent, so does the Sheriff’s alcoholism. It becomes an all consuming quest to bring the killer to justice. The film blends elements of horror, drama, suspense, and copious amounts of humor. Cummings’ dialogue had me laughing out loud to the point where I was missing things that were being said. The film builds to a uniquely satisfying conclusion that just hit all the right notes for this writer. I can’t wait to see what Cummings’ next project will be, and you can count me in regardless of genre. I’m just hoping he’ll once again shine a light on our beloved horror genre with his distinctly off-beat point of view.
My final pick for 2020 is the superb sci-fi espionage thriller POSSESSOR by writer/director Brandon Cronenberg. We’ve already published a lengthy REVIEW on this one, but it was an absolute mindf*ck that I’m frankly still grappling with to some degree. This is not for the popcorn crowd. This film asks a lot of its audience, but if you’re willing to pay the mental fee…the payoff is exquisite. It’s one the most violent films, but also one of the most cerebral films I’ve seen this year…in any genre.
Cronenberg creates a genre bender with his second feature, weaving together themes of the inner self, sexual politics, body dysmorphia, and even gender dynamics. Hard to believe someone can attempt to make a commentary on all of these themes at once, yet here we are. That’s the beauty of the sci-fi/horror genres really, the ability to present all of these massively philosophical ideas in a digestible way.
The broader story centers on an espionage agency specializing in high profile assassinations. These assassinations are carried out by actually inserting the assassin’s consciousness into someone else’s body. These people are in the orbit of the target, and their bodies are taken over without them knowing…usually. The agency’s top assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) has been taking too many jobs too close together, where she is actually starting to blur the line of who she actually is. Her latest mission is also her most important, but of course that’s when her sanity begins to quite literally fragment around her.
As she becomes lost in this person’s body, the man she’s inhabiting also becomes aware of her presence. It becomes an all out war as each one tries to destroy the other, all the while blurring the lines of who either of them really were to begin with. What roles they play in the lives of others, and what roles they play for themselves. It’s a heady and violent trip, that often feels just like that…a bad trip. Cronenberg is certainly his father’s son, and it’s hard to believe that such horrors of the human body can come from theminds of two members of the same family.
My third and final film from Shudder was Jay Baruchel’s RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE. Technically this film played Fantastic Fest in 2019, but 99% of it’s viewing audience wasn’t able to see it until 2020 due to the pandemic. So, no angry emails please…RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE was an ingeniously clever meditation on violence in the media, and the artist’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for turning out violent content. It’s kind of the classic chicken or the egg argument. Are people inspired to commit violence because of violent content? Or does real life violence give way to the artistic expression of violence in various forms?
In Baruchel’s film, in which he co-stars alongside Jesse Williams and Jordana Brewster, he explores this argument in depth. Jesse Williams’ character is the author of a brutal comic book called Slasherman. While he’s on a press junket for his books, someone out there is committing copycat murders that have all appeared within the pages of his comics. It’s unclear if these murders are an homage to the artist, or if the killer is sending a message. As the murders become more graphic, and closer to the author’s inner circle, Williams is forced to examine the purpose and even the motivation behind his artwork. He can’t help but feel responsible, but comic books don’t kill people…do they?
The film is a gritty and gory affair, but it also has a lot of introspective moments that examine the nature of art itself. It’s hard not to think of things like Marilyn Manson being balmed for the Columbine High School Massacre, or Metallica being blamed for teen suicide throughout the 80’s. To what level is an artist responsible for something that has been done in the name of, or motivated by their art? It’s kind of a heavy concept, but make no mistake RANDOM ACTS is a horror film. The murders committed by the Slasherman fanatic are grisly and presented in a matter of fact way, that’s almost devoid of the usual glee slasher films induce. The murders feel a little too realistic, and the manner in which they’re depicted is very unsettling. I believe this was done intentionally to juxtapose the real life horrors from the artistic kind. Baruchel shows great promise in the horror genre, being that he’s usually known for comedy. RANDOM ACTS is for the slasher fan looking for a philosophical angle to the on screen carnage, and who knows…you might just ask yourself why you gravitate to this particular sub-genre in the first place.
As usual, I couldn’t really decide on just 5 things, and BECKY was definitely near the top of my list. This film was just fun and tense from the opening frames. It’s sort of like a very adult version of HOME ALONE. My palms were sweating the whole time, and boy was it freaky to see Kevin James as a ruthlessly viscous neo-nazi villain. Who knew the King of Queens could unleash such a terrifying character into the world? I love seeing actors go against “type” and Kevin James is nothing short of chilling as Dominick, with all his nazi tats and an imposing figure to say the least. You don’t realize how intimidating Paul Blart can be until he’s torturing the ones you love. Also, Lulu Wilson…at just 15 years old she’s already amassed a stellar amount of credits to her name. It also appears that she has a penchant for our beloved genre, and I personally can’t wait to see where her career takes her after this. She has a very bright future playing very dark characters.
BECKY (Lulu Wilson) is the titular character in this home invasion thriller. Her home life is tumultuous and her behavior is getting worse and worse. Her dad Jeff (Joel McHale) is hoping to get remarried after the passing of his wife, and he’s desperately trying to get Becky to accept his new lover. Becky has been lashing out at school, so Jeff takes her and his new fiance to the family’s summer home. At the same time, Kevin James and several of his nazi accolytes escpe from prison. These violent men have something hidden in Becky’s house and they return to get it.
Becky is off in the wood pouting when she realizes that these nazi scumbags have broken into her house and are quite literally torturing her family. Becky quickly understands that she’s going to have to fight back with all the colored pencils and broken rulers in her arsenal. Just like Kevin Mcallister, she knows the lay of the land better than these thugs, and she happens to know what they’re looking for too.
There’s a ton of fun to be had here, but it’s also not for the squeamish. BECKY doesn’t hold back when it’s time to get bloody, and some of the torture scenes may be triggering for some viewers. If you like your nasty home invasion thrillers with a side order of childish booby trap violence, this one is a must-see! Not to leave out the fact that this film also has one of the best uses of a Macguffin since Tarantino’s light-up briefcase in PULP FICTION. I know these plot devices annoy some viewers, but I absolutely loved it!
So, there you have it. My top picks for 2020. I know that this year has been weird, and there were certainly fewer offerings this time than in years past. But in the end there were still enough quality showings that I couldn’t even narrow it down to just 5. I was a little disappointed that there were no notable horror video games or shows to report on this time around, at least not for this writer. I mean THE LAST OF US PART II was RAD, but not quite horror…was it? Rest assured that we at FEAR FOREVER will continue to do our part in keeping you all informed in 2021.
If I may share a brief story with you all as my conclusion, I think there’s something to be learned from what we’ve all been through as a collective “we”. When I was a young film student I had a professor who was as big a horror fan as any of us. He often taught several lectures on the horror genre specifically. I remember him saying that horror films are the product of a society in turmoil. He cited the 1920 masterpiece THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI as basically being the first true horror film ever made in response to Germany’s loss in WWI and eventual restructuring. He went on to talk about other films and their political counterparts such as GODZILLA and even the entire New French Extremity movement. It was fascinating to see someone actually draw a line between societal unrest, and the cinema that was reacting to it. My point is, that if this film scholar is to be taken at his word….and after the entire world just faced one of it’s hardest challenges to date for the entirety of mankind…One might be able to conclude that in the coming months and years, we’re all going to be hit in the face with some truly extreme and reactionary cinema. As a connoisseur of the extreme, I say bring it on!…or maybe I should be careful what I wish for. Nonetheless, I believe that the pandemic will hopefully give rise to some of the most visionary and confrontational new talent the world has ever seen.
With that, I ask you all to raise your glasses to the future of horror cinema!