I really, really miss the movies y’all. It’s obvious to say that 2020 was a hard year for everyone, and on a relative scale, I’m infinitely grateful for the continued good health of myself and my loved ones. But of all the little pleasures and freedoms that COVID-19 has taken, the movie theater experience is one of the things I miss the most. There’s something about the collective experience of a dark room, a massive screen, and a professional sound system that makes the experience of watching movies really magical for me. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of excellent movie releases in 2020, despite theaters being closed for the vast majority of the calendar year. There’s just something that is lost watching movies at home. Maybe it’s the threat of constant distraction, whether it’s my phone, my cat, or any of the million other things in my apartment that can pull me out of the experience. Maybe it’s the loss of sharing that experience with a group of friends or recording "Hot Takes" with the Story Screen family in person. Or maybe it’s just that sweet sweet movie theater popcorn. A major part of my enjoyment of movies is the experience itself, and for those reasons, I found it a lot harder to connect with many of the movies I watched this year. Despite all that though, I did find ten favorites that stood above the rest. Here they are.
10. The Lodge
The Lodge is a bitter, cold movie. If you’re a glutton for movie punishment like I am, and if everything else going on hasn’t made you feel miserable enough already, look no further than The Lodge. It’s the kind of psychological horror movie that slowly digs its icy fingers into your skin until you’re chilled to the bone. It’s a fresh take on the cult genre that explores the lingering effects of manipulation and trauma. It also features some devilishly creepy little children that you just love to hate. Between this and Knives Out, Jaeden Martell is going to have to be very careful to not get forever typecast as an extremely punchable little jerk.
9. She Dies Tomorrow
I don’t think director Amy Seimetz could have ever predicted how topical She Dies Tomorrow would be. The premise for this one is just as the title suggests: a young woman is convinced that she will die tomorrow, and spreads the affliction to anyone she informs. Sure, some of the themes here about facing one’s own mortality and existential dread are universal. But the relevance of spreading a deadly affliction with anyone you come into contact with makes this trippy little horror movie all the more eerie. Seimetz’s story reaches far beyond just a pandemic parable though and spends a good amount of its runtime exploring the ways each character feels when they come to terms with their own end. I especially enjoyed the use of lighting in this one, with some experimental scenes that really warp the perception of its characters by playing with light. She Dies Tomorrow is equal parts creepy, beautiful, and thought-provoking, and it stuck with me for a long time.
8. First Cow
First Cow is such a lovely little movie. Everything about it is so cozy and pleasant. Oh to be an American pioneer stealing cow’s milk to make tasty little oily cakes. Despite the harshness of the frontier setting, something about First Cow just made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The bond that the two main characters, Cookie and King Lu, form in their entrepreneurship is so kind and sweet. This is one I really wished I could have seen on a big screen so that I could have fully sunk into its warm embrace. Despite that, I was still able to immerse myself in the calm and quiet that First Cow provided. First Cow gave me an experience of peaceful reflection that was more than welcome in such a chaotic year.
7. Come to Daddy
This is a movie that fully lives up to its eccentric title. Elijah Wood has become such a gem in the movie industry in the last few years, whether he’s in front of the camera or behind the scenes producing with Spectrevision. Come to Daddy is funny, energetic, and downright bizarre. When I recommend a movie, I almost always give the advice to go in knowing as little as possible. This is the kind of movie that I would stress that advice even more than usual. I was immediately charmed by its cast of weirdos and consistently delighted and surprised by its twists and turns.
6. Anything for Jackson
This one came as a left-field recommendation from Mike Burdge, one that I am so thankful for. Anything for Jackson caught me completely off guard. Its premise is simple and straightforward, yet there’s a confidence in its execution that makes it unique. It's a perfect example of a horror genre movie that achieves so much with a very limited budget. Anything for Jackson finds a perfect balance of self-seriousness, playfulness, and a dark sense of humor. It also has a fantastic cast of characters and some delightfully twisted scares. My love for this movie only blossomed when Jeremy and Mike shared some delightful trivia about its creation. Its director, Justin G. Dyk, has spent the last five or so years cranking out dozens of corny Christmas movies for television networks like Lifetime and Hallmark. Anything for Jackson is a passion project that he and screenwriter Keith Cooper pulled together with very limited resources, using their own homes for much of the setting. If you’ve got a Shudder account and a free 90 minutes, I can’t recommend it enough.
5. Bill & Ted Face the Music
At best, I thought Bill and Ted 3 might be a fun little nostalgia trip that played on Keanu Reeve’s recent resurgence in public popularity. I was so pleasantly surprised when what I actually got was so genuine, sweet, and heartwarming. Reviving a franchise that has been dormant for thirty years is no easy task, especially with the added challenge of COVID-19 interrupting post-production, and I had set my expectations low. But rather than just winding up as a cash grab, Face the Music manages to capture the same heart and spirit that made the originals cult classics. Part of that is due to the film’s exploration of Bill and Ted feeling both their age and the enormous responsibility of saving the future. Part of that is the introduction of Bill and Ted’s daughters, Billie and Thea, who offer fresh perspective and charm. In a year when the world felt so divided and terrible, Bill and Ted were a ray of warmth and hope.
4. What Did Jack Do?
Sure, this one is technically a short film with a runtime of only 17 minutes. But did you really expect me to not put a new David Lynch release on my top ten? What Did Jack Do? is David Lynch distilled: it’s completely absurd, surreal, and borderline nonsensical. But in the nearly indecipherable interrogation between a detective (played by Lynch) and the titular Jack Cruz (played by a capuchin monkey), there is a sense of dreamlike logic of which Lynch is the undeniable master. For anyone who may still be wondering what the hell people mean when they describe something as “Lynchian,” I might recommend starting here.
3. The Vast of Night
2020 may have taken the movie theater experience from me, but it also introduced me to a new way of enjoying movies with others. Over the course of this year, I got way into “watch parties,” which are a way for streamers on Twitch to watch movies along with their followers. It’s basically just a time code connected to a chat room, but it offered a sense of community in movie watching that I had otherwise lost in the real world. For me, it was a great way to experience a flick with other people, especially on nights where I couldn’t make up my mind on what to watch. The Vast of Night was a 2020 gem that I experienced in this way. While I would have infinitely preferred seeing this one in a theater, there was something fun and unique about watching it with fifty or so other people. This is a movie that completely nails its Twilight Zone inspired aesthetic. I loved all of the clickety clackety analog technology. I was instantly charmed by its fast-talking leads. There's also some seriously stunning camera work here, as well as some captivating one-shot monologues. It’s incredibly impressive that this is the first feature from director Andrew Patterson, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Brandon Cronenberg has the unenviable task of living up to his legendary father’s name. With Possessor, I think he successfully pulls from some of the aspects that made his father such a successful horror director while carving out his own unique style. Possessor is creepy, violent, and gross enough to make papa proud, while offering its own distinctive vision of the near future and pondering complex themes of identity and self. I love how the technology in this movie feels futuristic yet low-fi in a way that achieves a perfectly gritty atmosphere. It also features fantastic performances from Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbot, whose characters warp and bleed into each other over the course of the film.
1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was the last film I saw in a theater before lockdown. Maybe that bias gave it the extra push to the top of my list. Even without that advantage, though, Portrait is an absolutely breathtaking film. I was completely enraptured by the beauty and grace of this movie. Its two leads, played by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, have stunning onscreen chemistry that left me in a complete emotional puddle by the time the movie ended. I still remember leaving the theater, now over a year ago, as a weepy, bleary-eyed mess. Director Céline Sciamma creates such a beautiful, tragic romance with Portrait that I couldn’t help but carry Héloïse and Marianne's heartache with me long after I had left the theater.
Co-Head of Podcasting
Jack makes drugs for a living, but not necessarily the fun kind. He enjoys international travel and discussing music, movies, and games in excruciating detail.