It is difficult to put into words the sheer breadth of anxiety, trauma, and grief we all went through in the year 2020, so I won’t even begin to try summing all of that up, as I’m sure better writers than I can do that more gracefully. What I will highlight, however, is my deep forlornness for the theatrical experience. Some of us at home may have 4K TVs, surround sound speakers, and a jar of popcorn kernels so that they don’t have to pay $8.99 for a single bucket. It is a more comfortable “theatrical experience” people can have in the safety and comfort of their own home, and that is terrific! With the advent of certain companies releasing their tentpole films Day One to streaming services, I didn’t have to pay $12.99 to see Wonder Woman 1984 and drive 20 minutes home ruminating on how much I deeply regretted the experience and how much money I burned on that aggressively mediocre garbage! I could just do all that at home without paying an extra dime! Yay!
What the theatrical experience offers that watching at home does not is the sense of community. The electricity in the air when a group of several dozen people knows they are sitting together to experience something special. The quiet array of gasps that permeate the theater as a surprising turn of events unfold in front of us. The wild howling when a singular piece of art touches the funny bones of everyone in the audience. You can very well watch Jackass 3 at home, but you will not recreate what it was like seeing Jackass 3 for the first time in the theater. A film presented in the theater can grab your attention in such an intimate way that no set up at home can quite match.
All that being said, there was still a wide variety of quality films to choose from that were released during this tumultuous year. As a benefit, some films that would have otherwise been relegated to obscurity due to large big-budget theatrical films grabbing all of our attention, now get to bask in the spotlight. These are the films that left the strongest impression on me. I can’t say these are the “best,” as I did not get the chance to see every release, but these were the ones I did see and ended up loving in some form or another. I’m also including a few TV series on the list, as the line between television and film tends to blur day by day, especially with how they are released now, I may as well embrace it and have them coexist on the same list.
First, here are some honorable mentions:
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
The Wild Goose Lake
Color Out of Space
And lest we forget Money Plane!
Now onto the real list!
As we all have been locked down and isolated from each other, I tended to gravitate towards films that provided and expressed a strong sense of community. The Brazilian film Bacurau exceptionally delivers on an ensemble cast turning the tiny fictional town of the titular Bacurau into a living and breathing place full of memorable characters and a twisted narrative full of surprises, heavily inspired by psychedelic westerns and the brutal blend of science fiction and action of John Carpenter.
9. The Invisible Man
Leigh Whannell's stylistic flourishes impressed me with his 2018 debut Upgrade, but some of the messier aspects of its narrative held it back for me from being great. However, The Invisible Man has all of the strengths of Upgrade (you can say it is even more...upgraded) while being lighter, leaner, meaner, and more on its mind with an incredible lead performance from Elizabeth Moss.
8. Small Axe: Lover’s Rock This is technically a place on the list for the entire Small Axe anthology of films, all written and directed by Steve McQueen. All of them are wonderful and powerful pieces of filmmaking, but Lover’s Rock stands out as such a unique hurricane of a film. I stated that Bacurau gave me the comfort of rooting for a community coming together, but Lover’s Rock had me feeling as though I was right there in the middle of the party with them. It is a truly hypnotizing work of sound and images that so genuinely captures the experience of connecting together through the power of music.
7. Survival Skills
For those unfamiliar, I would describe Survival Skills, the directorial debut of Quinn Armstrong, as carrying the same playfully dark tone of a feature-length episode of an Adult Swim infomercial with the narrative subversions of The Stanley Parable. The entire film is stylistically replicating a “Police training” video from the 1980s, narrated by the always gruff Stacey Keach. The complex morality tale of a rookie cop discovering the true nature of the ethics of his job within the framework of a cheesy 80s training video makes Survival Skills a unique and surprisingly compelling watch. To say more would be a spoiler!
6. Cobra Kai
Like many Netflix users, I discovered the once Youtube Red Series when the first 2 seasons of the show were dropped on Netflix late in the summer, and the third season earlier this year, with very little frame of reference to the original Karate Kid saga besides watching the original film when I was much younger. That being said, Cobra Kai is the smartest 80s reboot of a franchise I have come across. Instead of attempting to relive the glory days of its predecessor, the show takes an alternate angle and focusing on moving on from the glory days, and in turn, redeeming and bettering oneself now. That’s a powerful theme to sit with these days. The show never lets up on its genuine sense of sincerity as it takes its (at times absurd and unwieldy) premise completely seriously, never once winking at the audience, which kept me fully engrossed for its current 3 season arc.
5. Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee never holds back on what he wants to say and what he wants to show, and the world of film is a better and bolder place with his voice as a part of it. RIP Chadwick Boseman. “Five Bloods don’t die, we just multiply!” For a deeper dive, check out our podcast.
4. Feels Good Man
One of the most profound reflections on the madness of the last four years and an engrossing exploration on how a symbol can be warped into a beacon of hatred is a documentary about a cartoon frog. Who would have thought? I hope Matt Furie is doing well. He deserves only the best after what he’s been through. For more, check out our HOT TAKE.
3. Sound of Metal
An incredibly powerful aspect of the art of film is its ability to garner empathy through perspective, and Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal is a shining example of such an accomplishment. I felt the pain and the fear Ruben goes through like no other protagonist of recent memory goes through. The sense of loss and panic as his hearing goes is so painful and real, as the film sucks you into his headspace with genius sound design and atmosphere. The anxiety of change is something I’ve struggled with my whole life and it is the anxiety we have all been going through this past year. Sound of Metal is a sensitive reminder that change can be easier if we accept it and get through it together.
A complete face melter of filmmaking in every facet, Possessor proves that Brandon Cronenberg can not only carry the torch of his father’s body horror legacy (perhaps he even has the potential to surpass it?) but can give the most original and uncompromising voice to genre filmmaking since Panos Cosmatos blessed the world of film with the Story Screen favorite Mandy. Long live the New Flesh. For more gory details, listen here.
1. How To with John Wilson
Of all the movies and shows that I consumed under a lockdown or otherwise, How To with John Wilson is the one where I wished it would not end. I could vicariously experience New York City through the awkwardly insightful eyes of John Wilson’s camerawork, editing, and narration forever. The 6 episode series provides such a one of a kind, hilarious, and poignant experience that every human on the planet can connect with, giving idiosyncratic yet thoughtful advice on how to better ourselves through our everyday struggles. I have watched through the entire series 3 or 4 times now, and I cannot wait to revisit it again.
Thanks for reading. Hope you discovered something new and fun to dive into through reading this. Until then, stay safe and stay healthy.
Jeremy is younger than he looks, and has passionately studied the art and craft of filmmaking for as long as he can remember. He is currently a freelance wedding videographer and is also heavily involved in Competitive Fighting Games. You can follow him on Instagram @prof_k.o