Best of 2020- Lee

To say “What a year we’ve had” would not only be an understatement, but an unwanted cue for an unnecessary flashback reminding us of the whole catastrophic chapter we’ve been through. But that’s just it: “we’ve been through.” Riding some massive ups and downs that put any roller coaster in the history of mankind to shame, we made it—especially if you’re reading this I’d hope. Yeah, we lost many luxurious privileges or at least comfort of going to places such as movie theatres, concerts, restaurants, gyms, or simply hanging out with friends and family. More importantly, we may have lost loved ones, jobs, even homes to the global pandemic we’re fighting. I sure had my fair share of woes, but like you, I’m still here and we should be thankful for that. I guarantee thousands had it worse than us. So if there’s one thing I deeply wish society will take from 2020, it’s that we need to be better as a unified people for ourselves and our Earth; we need to put aside petty differences and come together during this time of global need.

The new year does not welcome us with any guaranteed betterment or satisfaction, but it certainly looks to be a step forward on many fields. Ideally, as a collective who has been mutually berated from all sides this year, we will take the right step forward in the direction of not what life used to be, but towards a better and more universally considerate life. I’d actually like to see Tenet, The Green Knight, No Time to Die, and DUNE in theatres, people! I for one have garnered more appreciation for some aspects of my life, those around me, and the little things that sometimes go unnoticed in the commotion of what we distantly remember as our “normal” lives. I, for one, sure saw more films than usual this year (861 as of writing this, which is still nothing compared to my colleague and friend Henry), but I probably also missed many due to COVID. To provide some perspective, of my top 20, only 4 of them were seen in theatres. So as with many other lists this year, there will more than likely be a few you think to be missing. 

Honourable Mentions:

The Wolf of Snow Hollow: Film Twitter veterans are well acquainted with director, writer, producer, actor (and past Twitter mutual—begrudged flex) Jim Cummings by now—an auteur one could say thus far. I have yet to see his highly acclaimed feature debut Thunder Road, but his sophomore crime thriller The Wolf of Snow Hollow delivered an original, yet almost Fincher influenced mystery with a handful of intriguing figures. A very fun take on the crime procedural with the added benefit of a murderous werewolf on the loose in the small isolated Fargo-esque town. Cummings carries the already brisk film with his eccentric, almost manic personality as this mystery will keep you guessing right up until the final act. It’s Robert Forster’s final film, and surely a thoroughly unique twist and entertaining picture to go out on. 

Da 5 Bloods: Spike Lee’s latest joint along with one of Chadwick Boseman’s final roles, continues showcasing Lee’s vicegrip on the pulse of the nation. In the year 2020 of all years, Lee once again delivers a topical and very timely punch to the inequalities and systematic racism that persists in America. Da 5 Bloods excels in its performances, but it’s Lee’s knack for never compromising his own vision and message that make him a cinematic force to reckon with almost every time he lights a new joint. Undoubtedly to be represented in various categories of this year’s up in the air possible Oscars, most specifically for picture, supporting role for Jonathan Majors, and lead/support for the film’s MVP, Delroy Lindo

Soul: While Pete Doctor has yet to reach the same heights of his classics, Up and Monsters Inc., Soul is a damn delight that smoothly tickles at your heart-strings like our protagonist Joe, does the ivory keys. Granted I somehow haven’t seen Coco and Brave yet, but Soul is Pixar’s best film since Toy Story 3—a decade ago. Even more bonus points for being the second Pixar film to have a non-White culturally diverse lead and narrative. With an intriguing blend of humanistic and abstract animation design, Soul has an undeniably unique visual style in its dealings with very mature, existential, and metaphorical concepts of life—continuing Pixar’s M.O. of making films for adults to have mini breakdowns, as the vibrant looks distract the kids. That said, children will struggle unpacking this one completely—especially since our protagonist literally dies within the opening minutes, in addition to the fact I have yet to meet a kid who appreciates jazz—unlike the more overt Inside Out. Soul’s musically driven story is aimed directly at more mature audiences, who can fully appreciate the little things one comes to cherish in their own special ways over years of experience, love, hate, success, failure, wanderlust, and heartache: also known as life. Similar to Another Round and Sound of Metal, Soul sets a thought-provoking tone that makes you take into account things you take for granted, while opening up some much needed optimism with an on-the-house side order of what the hell am I doing with my life as the credits roll. 

Birds of Prey: I know what you’re thinking: “A comic book movie on his top 10? What a normie.” But my list is probably going to be the most unique not in its eclectic, artistic indie choices of filmé, but in the lack thereof due to COVID restrictions, lack of streaming services, and not having income for online festivals. The sheer fact that only four of my top 20 were seen in theatres speaks for our global crisis itself. So yeah, I have an entry of the DCEU up here, and I really had a blast both times I saw it. #GirlsGetItDone (as The Boys would say), with Margot Robbie and company just beating down Ewan McGregor’s perfectly hammed up Black Mask and goons with the naturally occuring empowerment and entertainment Captain Marvel lacked. Cathy Yan’s fun pixie stick direction, with John Wick choreography, and Robbie’s hands-on commitment, Birds of Prey was certainly one of the better entries in the troubled DCEU alongside Aquaman and Shazam. I look forward to more of all three moving forward.

VFW: Along with a few other lowkey filmmakers like Adam Egypt Mortimer and Lucky McKee, Joe Begos has been an active proponent of the VHS 80s style cult film resurgence of late. His latest hyper violent film VFW pits a couple of veterans—played by some cult faves—against the onslaught of a maniacal drug lord and his horde of drug addicted zombie-esque followers. Holed up in their titular VFW for one last war, bathed in the neon cinematography, vibing to the synth score, VFW is one retro Carpenter influenced 80s throwback I wholly recommend.

Freaky: Director Christopher Landon proves once again that he is Blumhouse’s go-to reliable horror-comedy filmmaker. Freaky furthers his successful blending of the comedic and the slasherific: a handful of Easter eggs to boast from Hellraiser, F13th, Halloween, Scream, Urban Legend, Sorority Row, Child’s Play, TCM, and even to The Mummy. Vince Vaughn is straight money here, absolutely stealing the entire film as both the incredibly physically imposing Blissfield Butcher, and as an 17-year-old white girl. Vaughn unsurprisingly fits so well into both roles that he is actually a far better high school girl than Kathryn Newton. In terms of his slasher antics, I was really impressed with how menacing he was; I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you told me that he took some personal lessons from Kane Hodder himself—from the slow walk, the wall breaks, down to the little head tilt. His dual-performance alone makes Freaky worth a watch. It also makes me wonder if Landon would be up for the development hell dwelling 13th entry into the Friday the 13th franchise.

The Outpost: For all intents and purposes, this Jake Tapper book adaptation looked like it would have just been another generic poorly executed run of the mill DT/VOD pro-military film. The poster is cheap as hell, and the featured triumvirate of bald Orlando Bloom, bald and watery-eyed Caleb Landry Jones, and a mustachioed Scott Eastwood don’t really do much to dispel that original assumption. But you know what? The Outpost was surprisingly actually quite good! I say this in a positive manner, but it’s very much the poor man’s 13 Hours, but with far more believable brothers in arms by way of Generation Kill and Hyena Road. Rather to glorify war with an onslaught of jingoism, it follows in suit with other war films that critique the lack of oversight, muddled intelligence, egregious chain of command, language/cultural barrier, wasted youth, and overall yet another quagmire that the United States have just foolishly entered in the Middle East. Obviously there’s patriotism, but the key focus is placed on the chemistry and bond that these young men have with one another, and how the need to fight side by side with one another to survive and make it back to your families, practically supersedes the valour of your flag. 

Yes, God, Yes: A really fun and perfectly cringey watch that reminded me a lot of Eighth Grade—but to the tune of religious guilt and exploration. It’s the type of observant awkwardness that keeps you grinning and chuckling consistently throughout its very short yet succinct runtime. In a way it’s like the banana scene in the aforementioned Eighth Grade, but stretched out an extra hour, with a funner vibe. Sure it’s clichéd and feels like a YouTube series at times, but I just find it all so fascinating, entertaining, and satisfying to see unfold. I don’t find this insulting or “making fun of” religious individuals in any rude direct manner, more so director Karen Maine is able to show some overt hypocrisies in the system. Having the film set closer to the turn of the century (2001), it’s really fun to see the dial-up Internet and chat room aesthetic that some older generations had to go through in their teenage years. Natalia Dyer perfectly executes the repressed, horny, doe-eyed (not so) innocent girl character who is unaware of what things like “tossing salad” or “being wet” are, but my eyes are on Francesca Reale. The entire mostly unknown cast here does their job well, each with their awkward looks, stiffies, secrets, crushes, repressed feelings, unanswered questions, gossip, and more. I’d give this brisk 78min fun coming of age tale my approval.

L.A. Originals: Any of you with a full hand in street art, fashion, and hip-hop culture surely know the likes of Banksy, Basquiat, and Takashi Murakami, but have you heard of Mister Cartoon & Estevan Oriol? L.A. Originals sprays the story of these two iconic chicano legends who not only reinvented the tattoo game, strengthened ties between Latino and Black culture during a chaotic time for minorities in LA (when is it not though), but who also brought graffiti, hip-hop/rap, and convict culture into the modern trends and household awareness. Fledgling street art that has ties and massive influence today. Homie-Chicano culture, infusing the care for family, respect of the streets, crime, drugs, music, low-riders, odds are you have seen some of Cartoon’s tattoos and Steve-O’s photo/filming á la Joker Brand. Between the two, they photographed and tattooed various bands and artists ranging from Cypress Hill, NWA, Eminem, D12, 50 Cent, The Game, Snoop Dog, Method Man, Xzibit, Blink-182, Beyonce, Justin Timberlake, Kobe Bryant, Danny Trejo, Ryan Phillippe, and countless others. It’s an endearing and heartfelt story worth watching and learning from. Tapping into their popular cultural impact, just as much as they do in the societal changes that have now made tattoos and graffiti go from fringe and explicit vandalism to a revered and very profitable cultural fashion statement. It would have been nice to see what Marc Ecko’s thoughts were, seeing how he too was a graffiti artist turned fashion designer, turned super business (Complex)

Nobody Knows I’m Here: For a directorial debut, Gaspar Antillo shows a lot of promise with a great minimalist eye and attention to how saying less can sometimes benefit more. Honestly, this could have been a silent film had it not revolved around a musician (with a catchy song). Despite some duller script moments, with the help of (executive producer) Pablo Larraín’s usual DoP Sergio Armstrong, the visuals and dream-fantasy elements of the film do help in carrying most of the weight. I’d even say the set design aids in allowing the characters’ internal struggles to unfold on screen, e.g. his vibrant room depicting how much life he has bottled up inside. Antillo is certainly a name to keep an eye on, as I can easily see this film’s underrated value opening doors for a bigger funded and star powered future. 

10.) Be Water

(Bao Nguyen, US)

 An excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the legendary icon Bruce Lee. This is a must watch for fans and admirers of the martial artist and actor, doing an adequate and respectful job or briskly covering his unfortunately far too short career and life. A series of interviews, voice-over narration, behind the scenes footage, and a variety of clips are all used to craft this worthwhile look into his philosophy, his Jeet Kune Do, acting, family life, celebrity friends—including Steve McQueen and Kareem Abdul Jabbar—as well as his activism against racism in the States. New insights will vary on how big of a fan you are entering, but the highlights and occasional hidden gems of information are presented in a nicely wrapped, well-researched, entertainingly edited 97min. 

[Streaming on ESPN, and available for rent/purchase on Amazon Prime and Youtube]

9.) Spree

(Eugene Kotlyarenko, US)

A pleasant little 93 minute surprise vehicle with Stranger Things’s resident babysitter, Joe Keery going behind the literal Lyft wheel of his own Gen-Z American Psycho. Spree packs a very entertaining and bloody pseudo-meta social commentary on modern generations’ obsessions and unhealthy reliance on technological connectivity and being relevant via social media at all times. Spree uses Keery’s charisma and the energetic multi-screen (GoPro, cellphones, YouTube, Social Media) direction to sustain it’s off-kilter manic tone. It’s darkest comedy works because it’s sadly mostly true and quite reflective on certain aspects of current culture.

[Streaming on Hulu, and available for rent/purchase on most streaming services and Blu-ray/DVD]

8.) His House

(Remi Weekes, US/UK)

 An excellent feature directorial debut from Remi Weekes that blends African folklore, supernatural suspense, and the all-too-real horror of an immigrants perilous journey. As a past immigrant myself, one could say I’m not too unfamiliar with the struggles of fitting into a new culture, the delicate hurdles of wanting to assimilate without stripping yourself of your own identity, the unfair leaps needed just to insure you can begin a new and possibly better life for yourself and family, and more. His House blends both the eerie horror with practical effects and truly creative visuals, as well as the domestic horror of racism and being the outsider in a new land. Two terrific leads and a creepy supporting role from Matt Smith will keep you captivated in this occasionally surreal thriller. Keep your eyes on Weekes, as I wouldn’t be surprised if he got picked up by A24 or Monkeypaw Productions with a bigger budget. 

[Now streaming on Netflix]

7.) The Midnight Sky

(George Clooney, US)

 No, not the Miley Cyrus 2020 banger. I’m talking about George Clooney’s eighth film behind the camera and his long delayed return in front of the camera—four years since Money Monster. And a great performance return, as this is one terrifically subdued performance from the actor turned director. If you know me, you already know I love me some space and survival films respectively; Clooney blends both of them while throwing in a bit of paternal drama. Ad Astra and Arctic it is not, but there are many mutually overlapping themes, and quite a handful of moments that impressed me coming from Clooney. It may not be his best film (that title belongs to The Ides of March until further notice), but I’d argue it’s his biggest in scale. The practical set design, use of CG, and even the obvious reveal all work well in this touching tale of love and exploration. Alexandre Desplat’s score is also not to be dismissed, as it carries a large majority of wanderlust and emotion. 

[Now streaming on Netflix]

6.) The Invisible Man

(Leigh Whannell, US)

Leigh Whannell’s junior directorial output sees him successfully and intensely placing a modern twist to H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man. A taut psychological thriller meets traumatic drama as go-to mentally unstable character-actress Elisabeth Moss delivers one of the best performances of the year. While it loses a lot of steam in its nonsensical third act—probably for the sake of having some cool marketable action shots—Whannell manages to deliver the suspense and lingering horror of all the negative space in frame. A genius maneuver in reimagining the classic Universal Monster tale into one of domestic abuse and misogyny, wherein the titular character so perfectly fits the emotional scarring and fear of so many victims. 

[Streaming on HBO MAX, and available for rent/purchase on most streaming services and Blu-ray/4K/DVD]

5.) Another Round

(Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

 An excellent depiction of a midlife crisis amongst a group of professor-friends seeking to test a theory claiming that “Man is born with a 0.05% blood-alcohol level defect.” Does maintaining a steadily growing blood-alcohol level through the day help with the betterment of life? Does alcohol strip back our limitations and barriers to expose our true unfiltered selves? Like alcohol, does taking in life in calculated doses or unapologetically all at once alter the results? Despite commencing as a frat-bro oriented premise with an arthouse twist revolving around alcohol consumption, like many people a few rounds in, Another Round succeeds in delving far deeper and emotionally than you’d think. With the large help of another award worthy lead performance from Mads Mikkelsen, director and Dogme 95 movement co-founder Thomas Vinterberg subtlety and tastefully explores the existential social dilemma of life and how simply being alive is very different from L-I-V-I-N.

[Available for rent/purchase on most streaming services]

4.) Emma.

(Autumn de Wilde, US/UK)

My awards pick for cinematography, production, and costume design from what I’ve seen, as well as a confident nomination deserved for rising star Anya Taylor-Joy. Autumn de Wilde’s feature directorial debut shows immense promise across all categories, as she manages to craft a gorgeously vibrant, witty, and comical adaptation of the Jane Austen classic—into what feels like a Georgian era Clueless with hints of Mean Girls. Every character no matter how small the role has scene stealing material: from Bill Nighy’s pronunciation of “in-no-cence,” or his curious affair with a cold draft, to Miranda Hart’s incessant tales and gossip, Mia Goth’s nervously romantic crush on the Josh O’Connor vicar Elton, or simply Johnny Flynn’s ass. Emma. is certainly one of the most entertaining and luscious to look at period pieces you’ll see. 

[Streaming on HBO MAX, and available for rent/purchase on most streaming services and Blu-ray/DVD]

3.) Sound of Metal 

(Darius Marder, US)

A tremendous feature directorial debut from Darius Marder (writer of The Place Beyond the Pines), led by emotionally heavy hitting performances and some superbly immersive sound design. Originally slated to be a Derek Cianfrance docufiction, Marder manages to seamlessly adapt Sound of Metal into a deeply intimate and cathartic personal tale of grief, appreciation, and acceptance. While I enjoyed Cooke and Raci’s respective grounding and nomination-worthy supporting role performances, this film is undoubtedly carried by Ahmed’s raw and internally explosive performance as the drummer, Ruben Stone—a career best and top contender for lead recognition. A must watch on all accounts and like Another Round, The Midnight Sky, and Life, very much a life-affirming film begging you to appreciate not only what you have while you have it, but also the little things in life.

[Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and available for rent/purchase on most streaming services]

2.) Underwater

(William Eubank, US)

 Shout out to director, fellow MtG player, and Twitter mutual (slight flex) William Eubank for releasing the best disguised Lovecraftian film of the year, and one of the funner deep sea horror tales in recent memory. Those who know me, are aware of my love for both the deep sea’s boundless treachery, as well as Kristen Stewart. Underwater gives us both in spades, kicking things off right from the opening scene in a non-stop isolated setting sci-fi thriller that brings to mind Leviathan, Deep Rising, and DeepStar Six. Some excellent practical set/costume design, great blend of CGI, and a consistent tone of suspense till the very last scene. I’m surely one of the few if not only one to have this at my number for the year, but it’s the one I had the most fun with twice in theatres before all this COVID mess. I strongly encourage any fellow fans of Gears of War suits, Dead Space isolated suspense, and Lovecraftian lore, to check this future cult classic out.

[Streaming on HBO MAX, and available for rent/purchase on most streaming services and Blu-ray/DVD]

1.) Possessor (Uncut)

(Brandon Cronenberg, US/UK/Canada)

 Despite having every excuse to lean into his family surname and achievements of his legendary father, Brandon Cronenberg comfortably carves his own path in such a visually entrancing manner. That I’m aware of, his father David is not even attached in any form beyond name, in regards to credits—not even as a producer. With Brandon’s sophomore feature effort Possessor, he manages to craft an excellently trippy, cyberpunk feeling, corporate espionage thriller (almost Matrix/Inception-esque at times) that bolsters the three tenets of the Cronenberg mantra: technology, hyper-violence, and sex. Led by two very strong dual performances from Andrea Riseborough and Jon Snow look-alike Christopher Abbot, Possessor weaves an intricate tale of body swapping, mind merging, assassination, and loss of control in what seems to be an alternate polished yet bleaker version of Earth—invoking some eXistenZ vibes. Enough can’t be said about how Cronenberg’s crisp and symmetrical direction, Karim Hussain’s mirrored/fractured cinematography, and (Ben Wheatley usual) Jim Williams’s eerily hypnotic score all blend to make such a tremendously high-concept subconscious narrative manifested in the most remorseless of ways. Possessor is the definition of a psychological-thriller, and it effortlessly insures my interest into whatever Brandon Cronenberg boots up next.

[Available for rent/purchase on most streaming services and Blu-ray/4K/DVD]

Best of 2020

TheBigLeeBowski View All →

Film Studies/History graduate, using my love and knowledge of the medium to pass as a critic. To my editor’s chagrin, I typically like to go over my word count in discussing films. Most if not all my reviews are originally written within an hour of finishing the film, so that I can deliver an unfiltered, raw, genuine, in the moment, thought process to you. My taste is eclectic (both in film and music), but I have a strong preference for 80s Cult/Sleaze films, Sci-fi, War, Chambara, Fantasy, and Psychological Thrillers. Thanks for giving us a read and I hope you’ve enjoyed your visit! Long live physical media; long live VHS. Remember: watch whatever, whenever, with whomever.

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