I've been thinking a lot about those Japanese soldiers trapped on desolate islands after World War II. You know, the ones who still thought they were at war decades later. (Like, is that a true story or just something The Six Million Dollar Man made up?) But more importantly, imagine this: you get off the island only to find your country lost the war, your wife married the Japanese equivalent of Todd, and you blew right past the Godzilla Shōwa era, straight into the Heisei. Imagine sitting down to watch Godzilla vs. Biollante and not knowing what weed or nuclear waste is.
My point is 2020. Or more specifically, maybe there’s a happy medium in media consumption that rests between being on an island for 30 years without access to film or pop culture and living trapped in your house with uninterrupted connection to that world. Neither is particularly healthy for that head nut of yours, but only one of those is what we’ve been doing for nine months.
And I say this—not to drone on pedantically—but to illustrate the peculiar, one-sided nature of film viewership in the Year of Our Lord 2020. Obviously, the industry model has been twisted, turned inside-out, and very slow to reacting to the unusual forces at work. (There are literally films I could not put on this list if I wanted to, because studios have RE-embargoed them with hopes of a theatrical release in a month or two.) Yet, somehow improbably, that has not impeded an ungodly glut of releases, which generally fall into three categories:
1) Films you never knew existed because streaming releases of certain indies always seem to get buried
2) Films that didn’t have the impact they should have because you didn’t see them in the theater
For instance, my number one—which I genuinely think is the best film of the year—is gonna be an indie that only a few whackos on Film Twitter know about. Absent from my list completely are things like Relic and The Dark and the Wicked. Not because I didn’t like them, but because I just have this hunch they would have landed with me more in the theater.
And then there’s the noise. Everything else. Nothing hit loud enough to make an impact. Usually, when we look back on a year of pop culture, there’s a film or two that describes the era we just lived through. Much of this is due to the mass, communal nature of gathering inside a theater. Just as we would associate a smell or taste with a random moment from our childhood, we ascribe a certain film to a time, place, and the companionship in which we saw it. And the big ones resonate and imbed themselves within our souls.
This year, there’s nada. A major yardstick we have for conceptualizing or measuring a period of our own existence is gone.
So, again, I invoke the Japanese island soldiers, the most radical antithetical I can think of for this year’s media consumption. Their conception of time was “the big turtle looks more yummy this year.” But I bet you anything, when they got off the island, they said Godzilla vs. Biollante was the best movie they’d ever seen.
Hence, there’s something to be said for not having everything at our fingertips to be gleaned or devoured with the most random of impulses. That this way of consuming media is unhealthy for both, viewers and creators. That once this pandemic is over, we cannot accept this model as the new standard.
That, ultimately, when we get off this island, we know the war is over.
10. Beasts Clawing at Straws
There’s literally nothing in Kim Yong-hoon’s debut feature, Beasts Clawing at Straws, that you haven’t seen before. It’s a neo-noir about the destructive consequences of finding a bag of cash, which is the plot of pretty much every movie not made by Marvel. However, if we cared about the retread of genre tropes, we’d probably have more friends than we do. In fact, this feisty, South Korean crime thriller expects you to be one step ahead and delights itself in tripping you up—not with plot twists—but its sardonic sense of humor and utter disregard for human life.
Rehashing the plot is pointless. It’s an ensemble piece with a bunch sorry suckers with their sorry lots in life trying to cruelly one-up each other Cut-Throats Nine/The Hateful Eight style. A game of hot potato with a money bag and knives, essentially. What elevates Yong-hoon’s film, though, is his confident, stylish direction and total commitment to the joke. If Beasts Clawing at Straws were to, at any second, lean into the melodrama, the high wire act would fail.
Moreover, part of the thematic juggling is playing it straight. At no point does the film ever reach out and tell you it’s a comedy. Either you’re a depraved sicko like me who gets it, or you’re bored to tears with the tired genre workouts. But in a year of unrelenting darkness, it was actually quite refreshing and surprising to watch a South Korean crime film that didn’t descend into the usual bleak nihilism the genre is known for. If you have a macabre funny bone like me, you’ll have a blast with this one.
9. Anything for Jackson
One day, I want someone to get me the stats on using the black arts for bringing a loved one back from the dead. I mean, what is Satan batting in these scenarios? A thousand? Yet that fact alone doesn’t seem to dissuade people from trying.
Enter: Anything for Jackson. I put off this film for a while, as the synopsis didn’t light me up (I really could give two shits about grandparents and babies). But then I started hearing (seeing?) murmurings on Horror Twitter, saying this is an occult movie that goes there. Being a fan of occult films and anything there, I decided to push play. And I’m glad I did. While the film doesn’t go as all out as initially promised (the third act is a bit of a letdown), it goes way bigger than most indie films of its ilk.
Directed by Canadian Justin G. Dyck, a journeyman in the made-for-television holiday rom-com racket, Anything for Jackson follows a doctor and his wife (Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy) who kidnap a pregnant woman and use Satanic rituals to swap out the unborn child for their dead grandson. As these things are wont to do, events spiral out of control for the elderly couple once an opened portal releases malevolent spirits hellbent (heh) on terrorizing the living. Dyck has a deft hand, managing the horror and witty, dry humor; thus, the film feels very much like the “Bobby” segment in 1977’s Dead of Night by way of mid-tier Coen Brothers.
Julian Richings is especially great as Doctor Walsh, who must balance his own morality and loyalties to his wife and family. But what’s cool about this film is that it’s not scared to show us the ghouls, ghosts, and demons. After years of Blumhouse jump scares and silhouettes in dark rooms, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the ghouls fully lit, fucking shit up. And, yeah, some well-staged gore gags don’t hurt either.
Quentin Dupieux (The Artist) directs Deerskin, a very peculiar movie about a man who loves his deerskin jacket so much, he attempts to rid the world of all other jackets. It would also be redundant to tell you this film is French.
I never saw The Artist—I’m not a fucking idiot—but whatever charm actor Jean Dujardin brought to that film, he brings here in spades. In what would otherwise be a very unsympathetic role, Dujardin adds a weird pathos to Georges, a man who is in the midst of a mental breakdown following the separation with his wife. He roams the French countryside, broke as shit after he spent thousands on a new deerskin jacket, an act that forced his ex to put the kibosh on his access to bank accounts. Therefore, he ekes by as a low-level conman, while simultaneously receiving voice instructions from his jacket that all other jackets must go.
Along the way, Georges cons a bartender and aspiring film editor, Denise (Adèle Haenel) into giving him money, telling her he’s a film director that is unable to get funds to complete his film from producers who are trapped in Siberia. The pair, together, embark on finishing his film, all to catastrophic ends.
So…you either read the above and are totally into this, or your hand actually leapt through the screen at me with your exaggerated jack-off motion. Which I totally get. Deerskin ain’t for everybody. However, if you want a comedy that’s a little offbeat and veers into horror territory (a realm Dupieux is very much comfortable in, if you’ve seen Rubber), this is certainly worth checking out. A very funny statement on modern art and filmmaking.
7. The Wolf of Snow Hollow
Back-to-back, I’m recommending films that 50% of you are going to love, while the other 50% google my address and The Anarchist Cookbook in short proximity. And that’s the best part of cinephilia: there are as many varying degrees of film taste as there are unstable, homemade explosives.
And The Wolf of Snow Hollow dropped onto the horror scene this year like said explosives. Either you were completely taken by Jim Cummings’ caustic, mean-spirited humor and dedication to monster tropes, or you were wrong. Ain’t much in-between.
I kid, but I honestly don’t get the soft love for this film. Most films about mental breakdowns usually focus on the cool alcoholism and living-free spirit of the protagonist, or they’re Falling Down. Cummings—as he does in his debut Thunder Road—depicts someone falling apart in perhaps the most accurate way: as a person who’s really fucking annoying to be around. The werewolf metaphor has been used endlessly for things like puberty, menstruation, and sexual repression. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it applied to a divorced dad just going through some shit.
Cummings stars as Office John Marshall, a man set to take charge of the police department in the small Utah community of Snow Hollow once his dad, Sheriff Hadley, retires. (Sheriff Hadley is played by Robert Forster in his last screen role before his death.) Marshall is a recovering alcoholic juggling his relationship with his distant daughter and the responsibilities of running the department due to his dad’s physical decline. And that’s all before a series of gruesome murders transpire, all of which appear to be committed by a werewolf.
The Wolf of Snow Hollow alternates between brutally funny and funnily brutal, but is always beautiful and poignant. Cummings went through a hard divorce early in his life, and everything here feels like it’s coming from a place of honesty (which can help explain the hard edges of his character).
Perhaps the most extraordinary element of the film is Cummings’ commitment to the werewolf aspect. One expects in hipster indies such as this for the horror to be sidelined or mocked, but the director does neither. Is it really a werewolf? I’m not gonna tell you. But it’s an amazing creature design.
The title, Swallow, leaves nothing to the imagination. Women put up with some shit; they’re asked to swallow a lot (metaphorically and you know what else). So it’s pretty funny and ironic when a film comes around involving a woman in a tightly controlled marriage, whose pica (the compulsion to swallow non-food items when pregnant) turns into an act of rebellion against the patriarchy.
And Haley Bennett absolutely shines as the marble-gobbling wife in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ quiet and provocative feature. Bennett begins the film as quite the pathetic, little creature—always living to serve her ungodly piece of shit lawyer husband (Austin Stowell). Though, when she develops pica at the start of her pregnancy and becomes an embarrassment to her husband and his rich parents, each progressive (and dangerous) act of swallowing inedible objects (thumbtacks, jacks, dirt) becomes a subversive statement of empowerment.
Swallow is gorgeous and timely, and Haley Bennett is the next big thing.
In a year full of what-the-fucks, perhaps the one thing I never saw coming was John Hyams, the director of Universal Solider: Day of Reckoning, directing one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not ragging on Day of Reckoning. It’s bad-fucking-ass. But Hyams ain’t exactly known for subtlety and the dexterous build of tension and drama.
Yet, those are the exact elements that take Alone into the stratosphere. The film suffocates you with its minimalism, letting you feel every note of dread, every second churning towards an apocalyptic conclusion. A certain tactility hangs over the proceedings like the fog over the Pacific Northwest setting of the story. The isolation. The cold. The unease.
And when you’re not swinging for the fences, stylistically, you’re relying on big, top-tier performances from your stars. Which is no problem here. Jules Willcox plays a recently widowed woman moving from Portland, a drive that will take her and her old Volvo through the desolate, Oregonian wilderness. Right from the get-go, she is stalked by a nameless stranger (Marc Menchaca), before the movie descends into a tireless cat-and-mouse chase.
Plot-wise, there aren’t many surprises, but the tension is so amped up, you won’t care. Menchaca is downright unnerving as the stalker/kidnapper, and any time he’s on screen, you’ll definitely find yourself breathing less. However, it’s Willcox’s show, and she fucking nails it. In this type of fare, the heroine must always find inner strength to survive, which can sometimes be kinda stupid and cheesy. Here, I believe every second of it.
4. Climate of the Hunter
Who or what the fuck is Mickey Reece? I’d never even heard of him until, one day, a screener of his film, Climate of the Hunter found its way into my inbox. Now, full disclosure, I receive a lot of screeners and maybe push play on five percent of them. But there was just something about the cover and accompanying pull quotes (“A DELIGHTFUL RIFF ON ‘70S GRINDHOUSE PYSCHEDELIA”) that lured me in. Like the inescapable allure of a vampire, so to speak.
And I gotta say: whoever you are, Mickey Reece, I’m a fan!
For as unusual as this movie is, the story is pretty straight-forward. Ben Hall stars as Wesley, a worldly and well-traveled gentleman visiting two sisters (Ginger Gilmartin and Mary Buss) at their vacation cabin, while his wife is institutionalized for schizophrenia. The two sisters fight for his attention, even as it becomes clear to one of them that Wesley is, indeed, a vampire.
That’s the boring description of it. Conventionally, this film is unexplainable. Reece shoots everything in a square aspect ratio, giving the film a television-like quality—which immediately brings to mind Dark Shadows. Think Dark Shadows filtered through the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks, and you’re somewhere in the ballpark of what this film feels like to watch.
The dialogue and delivery are heightened and theatrical like a soap opera, and the actors all appear to have been given the instruction bigger is better. Psychedelic flourishes accent pretentious, long-winded diatribes about the cosmos. Guiding each character is the emotional pursuit of the sublime, just as with any gothic or Romantic text, while sexuality (repressed or flaunted) oozes from every frame.
Mickey Reece is a director to be on the lookout for. At once singular, weird, and direct, he could be a driving force in the next generation of cult cinema.
I’m willing to guess that Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor will be topping a bunch of year-end lists. As it should. The film is a modern sci-fi masterpiece.
Unfortunately for Brandon, the begotten son of David, his work will inevitably be compared to his father, good or bad. Already, I’ve heard things like, “if you told me this was the new David Cronenberg film, I’d believe it.” Which is a tad unfair. There are certainly parallels between the two, as both seem to be preoccupied with niche body horrors and presenting them with a cold, clinician-like sensibility.
But for all the similarities, Possessor (like Brandon’s debut feature, Antiviral) has a modern visual palette that would be completely alien in his father’s oeuvre. The drama is also more interior and abstract, while David has no problem turning the psychological concerns into visceral, gory, real life metaphors. Of course, that being said, Brandon doesn’t shy away from brute violence (and when it hits, it hits hard). But dissimilar to many of father’s films, his movie won’t be defined by the tactile gore.
The film follows Andrea Riseborough (of Mandy fame) as an unusual kind of contract killer. Through advanced technology, she is able to “possess” other people’s bodies, thus using them to get closer to the targets before doing the deed and killing “herself.” The film becomes a kind of mission gone awry movie once she possesses Christopher Abbott, in order to kill his fiancé’s dad (Sean Bean).
Riseborough and Abbott both turn in powerhouse performances, elevating the film much higher than the B-movie trappings of the material. And Cronenberg cleverly weaves the narrative in a way that guides your character sympathies to unexpected places. Bottomline: Possessor rules.
2. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
This is a first-ever for a Bonkers Ass list: a documentary. Well, it’s pretty much a documentary in that it’s a real fake documentary. Let me explain:
On the surface, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a cinéma vérité-esque doc detailing the last 18 hours of a Las Vegas dive bar before it closes down for good. It’s an intimate, unvarnished peek at the diverse, blue collar community who call it home and each other family. However, the bar (The Roaring Twenties) isn’t actually in Vegas; it’s in New Orleans. And the subjects aren’t real customers, they’re (mostly) non-actors playing a variation of themselves for the camera.
But for something this good, that kind of shit hardly matters.
Our window and de facto guide into this world and cast of characters (all of whom would be right at home in a Replacements song) is Michael, a failed actor who is full of Hemingway-like musings, like praising himself for being a failure before he was an alcoholic. He awakes in the bar the last morning and is the last one to leave the following, and through him we meet a likeable, humble lot trying to make sense of The End.
Filmmakers Turner and Bill Ross place the story on the eve of the 2016 election, so each character must personalize the impenetrable and heavy, apocalyptic cloud of dread on two fronts: how gentrification led to the closing their bar (home) and how those same economic forces led to something like a Trump presidency.
But that’s all heady subtext. The real draw of this film is hanging out with these characters for 98 minutes. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a beautiful portrait of what feels like a lost era—something that was just there a second ago, a place of which we cannot return. (Plus, the fact the title comes from a Drive-By Truckers song is pretty rad.)
Oh, we’ve all been there. Trying to get the girl you like to like you, all while your high school class is spontaneously combusting.
‘Tis the plot of Spontaneous in a nutshell, a film that feels more like living through 2020 than actually living through 2020. Brian Duffield (writer of The Babysitter) writes and directs this—let’s go with unusual—teen rom-com, adapted from Aaron Starmer’s novel of the same name. And in the vein of the best high school comedies, like Heathers and Clueless, it treats its protagonists as adults. Except, in a very timely fashion, it’s about young adults coming to terms with their own mortality and the random manner of which an unjust universe doles out death.
So essentially, you’re just sitting around waiting for people to pop.
Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) is an absolute marvel here, playing the spunky and cynical Mara Carlyle, who must navigate a world of love and death once members of her senior class begin randomly exploding. She strikes up a relationship with Dylan (Charlie Plummer), and the two fall more and more in love as more and more of their classmates explode—basically setting a timeclock on their romance.
I don’t know what it is with Duffield projects, but just like The Babysitter and Samara Weaving, they just seem to attract the most badass, up-and coming Australian actresses. Spontaneous is really good, but Langford completely makes it. The journey she is on is incredibly dark, and in lesser hands, the film would succumb under the weight of that kind of blackness. Yet, Langford skillfully—and charismatically—keeps things light and real.
Spontaneous is the film we all need right now. It’s funny and dark in equal measure, but more importantly, it’s life-affirming. And lord knows we could all use a little of that.