Alex’s Favorite Films of 2020

Steppe Up: Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) and Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) share a moment between dance moves in And Then We Danced.

When the first lockdown occurred back in March of 2020, the last film I had seen in theatres was the Betty Gilpin led action horror satire, The Hunt. Now as much as I enjoyed that viewing experience, I would have been extremely pissed if that was my last theatre experience of the year; and as we watched every anticipated movie get delayed or just completely removed from the calendar, I feared that The Hunt was going to my peak film experience of this god awful shit show of a year. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all. If I’m being honest, 2020 was actually pretty solid when it came to film and television; and as much as I would have loved to be back in the theatre to see what are now my favourite films of the year, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy trying to recreate that premiere feeling in the comfort of my own home. 

Before I begin my top ten list for the year, I wanna highlight some films that impacted me quite a bit but didn’t quite make the list. Starting out with The Invisible Man, an impressive take on the iconic monster and a modern #MeToo spin to it, led by Elisabeth Moss at the top of her game. I loved everything about this film, from Leigh Whannell’s direction, the atmosphere, the way it was shot and the supporting characters. Another film I’d like to recommend as one of my favourites of the year is Clea Duvall’s Happiest Season. This one made me so happy because it was the first time I had seen a holiday film led by queer characters that had an actual budget and a stacked cast. It was one of the sweetest films of the year and such a joy to watch. 

Now, the next two films I want to mention before I dive in didn’t actually come out in 2020,  but instead had their festival premieres. Meaning they’ll be out in 2021 and most likely will be at the tops of my list once again. Those two films are Shiva Baby and Jump, Darling. I’ve actually written full length festival reviews for both of these films already so I won’t speak too much on them except that they’re both not only two of the most impressive queer films I’ve ever seen, but two of the most unique feature debuts I have ever seen. Shiva Baby being directed by Emma Seligman, about a college student who runs into her sugar daddy at a funeral; and Jump, Darling directed by Philip J. Connell, about a young drag queen who moves in with his grandmother to take care of her as her health declines. Now that we’re in 2021, I will absolutely be doing my best to encourage everyone to see these two films whenever they’re release comes up. But without further ado, here is my top ten of 2020.

(From left to right) Celeste O’Connor as Nyla, Vince Vaughn as The Butcher and Misha Osherovich as Josh Detmer in Christopher Landon’s Freaky.

Freaky / Dir. Christopher Landon

To start off with a bang, I’d like to talk about my absolute favorite (No. 1) film of the year; and that is Freaky. A body swap horror about a teenage girl who is switched into the body of a deranged serial killer, played by none other than Vince Vaughn. The thing about this film is that I had gone in with extremely high expectations due to Christopher Landon (Happy Death Day) being one of my favorite horror directors at the moment. A good horror comedy in my opinion is one of the hardest things to pull off and to be honest, I’m not really the biggest fan of them. But in the last five years, Landon not only released two of the best in the genre, but also a crazy fun sequel with Happy Death Day 2U. You see, slasher movies are my absolute favorite kind. As a fan of this subgenre, I go into a slasher wanting good chase scenes, nasty kills, a fun killer and characters that I actually want to root for. It’s been so long since I’ve been completely pleased and got everything I wanted out of a movie with a killer on the loose, and this is the one I’ve been waiting for. I got everything I wanted and more, all while subverting the clichés of the genre. On top of that, there was real queer representation in a genre with little to none and that is why this was my favorite film of the year.

Charlie Plummer as Dylan and Katherine Langford as Mara in Brian Duffield’s Spontaneous.

Spontaneous / Dir. Brian Duffield

Coming of age films that deal with the complexities of growing up, high school, first loves, first heart breaks and most importantly friendship and the ever growing anxieties the real world has to offer are my kind of films. The thing with these films is that when done right, they make you think about who you are as a person while also realizing so many people go through the same emotions and turmoil as you. This time around, we get another coming of age dealing with all that our teen years have to offer – good and bad – all the while the graduating class we’re following throughout are randomly exploding with no real explanation. Leading the film is Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why) who, in my honest opinion, gives her best performance to date. She carries the film with ease and shows that not only can she be a dramatic actress, but also slays in a comedic role. Her chemistry with every supporting character is completely on point and she gives multiple monologues that should easily garner her awards talk, but unfortunately this is one of those films to go completely overlooked during awards season. Spontaneous is a film best to go into blind. It’s quirky, hilarious, unpredictable and one of the goriest films of the year. The thing with life is that crazy stuff happens in the world all the time, to good and bad people, whether they deserved it or not doesn’t matter. Not everything can be explained but you just have to keep moving forward and enjoy this beautiful and messed up world as much as possible. That’s what I took from this film and I’ve kept that with me since my first viewing.

Dylan O’Brien as Joel in Michael Matthews’ Love and Monsters.

Love and Monsters / Dir. Michael Matthews

Unfortunately for me, I watched this on my laptop in my bed late at night after not being able to find anything to watch. I say unfortunately because this would have been an absolutely bonkers and wild ride in the theatres, but it was good enough for me to still have a great time on the small (very small) screen. Fun fact about this one is that it was actually written by Brian Duffield, the writer and director of the film I just talked about, Spontaneous. I went into Love and Monsters without knowing that but now that I hold that information, it’s no wonder why both films ended up on my list. Love and Monsters follows Joel, a young man who lives in a world overpopulated and taken over by giant grotesque monsters. Joel has settled for a life of playing it safe in a bunker accompanied by multiple couples, him being the only single one. Tired of a life of feeling useless with no real path, he sets out on a journey to the girl of his dreams bunker. I for one am usually not into films about men who have unrealistic expectations of their crush and expect them to live happily ever after once they feel as though they’ve “proved themselves” to be “worthy”. Thankfully this doesn’t turn into one of those films. It’s more so about self acceptance and discovering that love and trust comes from more than just romance. I won’t give much else away because it’s got some fun tricks up its sleeve and on top of that, it’s led by Dylan O’Brien. You can never go wrong with Dylan O’Brien. Seriously if you don’t love him what is wrong with you?

Cristin Milioti as Sarah and Andy Samberg as Nyles in Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs.

Palm Springs / Dir. Max Barbakow

Ah yes, another time loop film modeled after Groundhog Day; is what you would expect from first glance. Luckily for Andy Samberg’s new film, that is not the case. Samberg and Cristin Milioti lead this wacky and hilarious new take on time loop films as we follow their two characters, who are complete and utterly a messy duo, as they’re trapped on the same day at a Palm Springs wedding. Starting out as strangers, the two come to realize they’re the only ones who truly understand and can rely on one another as they deal with their impending life of repeating the same day over and over again. The great thing about Palm Springs and it’s plot is that we’re not thrown into a first act of them trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s self aware enough to know that we’ve seen this before and don’t need a whole thirty to forty minutes of watching the characters have to relive the day again and again before they realize what’s going on. Even though it’s disguised as a comedy in a brightly lit world, it’s not afraid to take us to dark places and give us something to think about in our own lives. Are we happy about our day to day lives or have we settled for a safety net of mediocrity. Milioti and Samberg are completely electric in this film and their chemistry radiates through the screen. Actually I think it’s safe for me to say this was my favorite on screen duo of the year, and there’s been a lot of great ones. It’s recently gone up on Amazon Prime so if you’re looking for a fun, original and surprisingly thought provoking films; I highly recommend this one.

Aubrey Plaza as Allison in Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear.

Black Bear / Dir. Lawrence Michael Levine

Anyone who talks film with me often knows that I am truly obsessed with Aubrey Plaza and her work. Whenever I see her name attached to something it quickly jumps to the top of my anticipated list and I know I’m in for a wild ride. Black Bear was absolutely no exception. Going into Lawrence Michael Levine’s newest film, I had no idea what to expect but I was sold on it’s leads; Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott – another one I can’t seem to stop talking about. When it first started, it had such an uneven and uncomfortable atmosphere that quickly drew me in, but also didn’t seem like a kooky and unique experience that I’ve come to expect from the two of them. Boy was I wrong. This is a massive WTF film and I loved every second. It’s one of those scripts that takes you through a first half, not really knowing where it’s going but you’re okay with that; and then completely flips the script and becomes something else. Something you wouldn’t at all expect. This reminded me of why I love movies. Why I love writing movies and why one day I aspire to make a feature film. Without giving too much away, this is one of the most accurate depictions of filmmaking and what it means to be a filmmaker on a set. Do not watch this trailer, go in blind, and hopefully be as much in awe as I was watching this for the first time. I never thought an Aubrey Plaza performance would affect me, move me in the way as Ingrid Goes West did. Until now. It kind of sucks that her performance hasn’t been mentioned much in the awards season talk but then again, that’s why we have the Indie Spirits Awards show and that is the one that matters most to me because honestly, screw the Oscars and their snubs.

Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone in Corey Finley’s Bad Education.

Bad Education / Dir. Corey Finley

Thoroughbreds is a movie I hold so dear and close to my heart. It was Corey Finley’s feature directorial debut and was one of the most unique films I’ve seen. Since seeing that movie, I’ve been impatiently awaiting his second feature and when I heard it was based on a true story of the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American History, I was intrigued but also it’s not at all what I expected from him after seeing a film about unlikely friendship and murder. But his name was attached to Bad Education so of course I was excited to watch it; and he did not let me down. This was great filmmaking. A political dramedy led by Hugh Jackman with a career best? I think so. This cast was great and it was storytelling at its peak this year. We got to follow characters that were so in the wrong and root for them to succeed even though we know what they’re doing is so messed up. I envy character studies like that. Also the fact that it had a queer lead as well, which I was absolutely not expecting, shot this right up on my top of the year list. I didn’t know much about this scandal going into it so every twist and turn hit hard and felt so unpredictable, even within a true and well known story. That is why it’s storytelling is so great, because you never really know where it’s heading and what our protagonists – or antagonists depending on how you look at it – are going to do next. It’s a stacked cast mixed of veterans and newcomers and everyone is at the top of their game which makes this an absolute blast. 

Edward Chen and David Hao-Chi Chiu in Kuang-Hui Liu’s Your Name Engraved Herein.

Your Name Engraved Herein / Dir. Kuang-Hui Liu

As someone who remains up to date with all film news, it’s exciting when a movie slips by and catches you by surprise. This was the case with Your Name Engraved Herein, a Taiwanese film that randomly popped up on Netflix in December. The film follows two male best friends, Jia-Han and Birdy, who fall in love during high school in 1987, while dealing with family and school pressures along with homophobia even while remaining closeted. For a film that is so far up my alley I’m not sure how I failed to know this was a thing, especially considering it was Taiwan’s highest grossing LGBTQ+ film for not only this year, but ever. There were so many scenes in this that just made me stare in awe from the imagery, to the score and ultimately because of the acting between the two mains. This actually may have been the film I related to most this year. Knowing what it’s like to feel like you’re falling in love with someone who would never dare to show their whole selves to you in fear of what everyone around you might say. It captures the authenticity of young queer love, the added on anxieties, the back and forth of having yourself let go and experience raw love before ultimately going back into hiding the moment after. This story of Jia-Han and Birdy also highlights how hard it is to be a gay teenager and allow yourself to feel love as openly as everyone else even if you have people around you that are accepting. It’s a beautiful love story that has a fantastic ending that may sit with you as powerfully as it sat with me. 

Riz Ahmed as Riben in Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal.

Sound of Metal / Dir. Darius Marder

A drummer’s passion, career and life is thrown into turmoil when he rapidly begins to lose his hearing on tour. That’s all I knew going into this movie, I don’t even really remember watching a trailer but just from the description I sensed that this was going to be an emotional rollercoaster. My gut feeling was right on that one cause this movie lowkey destroyed me. Led by Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler) and Olivia Cooke (Me and Early and the Dying Girl), two highly underrated artists that have given incredible performances year after year; now delivering career best performances in Darius Marder’s (who wrote The Place Beyond the Pines) newest film. The thing I loved about this was that it was an original story and it showed in the filmmaking. We’re introduced to an authentic look into the lives of those who struggle with impaired hearing and how it’s something with time that doesn’t necessarily become considered a disability. Now, that’s just a small group that was portrayed in this film and everyone deals with deafness differently. I loved watching a different type of community and others stories that aren’t necessarily shown that often in film. Come awards season, I expect to see a lot of love for the sound design and Riz Ahmed, both very well deserving of all their praise.

Bachi Valishvili as Irakli and Levan Gelbakhiani as Merab in Levan Akin’s And Then We Danced.

And Then We Danced / Dir. Levan Akin

Now that we’re coming down to my last couple of movies, I’m going to be talking about one that instantly became not only one of my favourites of the year, but also one that I consider to be a favourite out of all the films I’ve seen. That film is And Then We Danced. I went to see this movie with one of my best friends, who had already seen the film at a foreign film festival. She told me this was a must see and that I was going to love it, so I blindly went in with very high expectations. Little did I know the actual impact this would have on me. When Call Me By Your Name came out in 2017, I quickly became one of those gays who only talked about that one film for not only the months ahead, but years ahead. Sort of predictable and embarrassing, trust me when I say I do know that. I’ve been chasing the feeling I felt during that movie for a very long time, a romance that many of the world got from films like The Notebook or Titanic. As I sat in the theatre, watching And Then We Danced, I knew about halfway through that I was experiencing all of those feelings again but they were surprisingly amplified. It follows the story of Merab, a competitive dancer whose life and emotions are shifted due to the arrival of Irakli. Filmed in Europe, taking place in Georgia and dealing with Georgian culture, this was a brave film. Due to the homophobia and treatment of queer people there, they had to have security and protection at all times and even some of the people involved in the project didn’t have their name in the credits due to fear of being involved with such a film. I have so much respect for anyone involved with this film because it’s such a powerful story and has such magnetic performances from all the newcomer leads. I’ve seen this multiple times and it just becomes more and more powerful with each viewing experience, also including a stunning scene of the main dancing to a song by Robyn that I have watched over and over again.

Carey Mulligan as Cassandra in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman.

Promising Young Woman / Dir. Emerald Fennell

To end this list, I’m going to talk about one of the most electrifying and highly recommended films of the year. And that is none other than Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman. Starring Carey Mulligan in an Oscar worthy performance, we follow Cassie, a med school drop out who once a week pretends she’s heavily intoxicated so that a “nice guy” will pick her up and take her home so they can be taught a lesson. It’s a timely film that has already been deemed controversial, and sometimes those end up being some of the best of the year. Although it’s disguised as a revenge tale, many have recently come to terms with it actually being about grief and its stages, which upon a third viewing I can see that being true. It’s well shot and directed, having one of my favourite shots in a movie this year and a cast of familiar faces and roles I never thought I’d see them play. The biggest supporting star that has not only caught my eye, but the eyes of many others is Bo Burnham (The Big Sick). He’s an absolute scene stealer and his comedic chops paired up with director Emerald Fennell (Killing Eve) is a joy to witness. Bo also has a scene that involves one of my favuorite guilty pleasure songs, Stars Are Blind by Paris Hilton, and I was floored by it in so many ways. But the real star here is obviously Carey Mulligan in a role that is unlike anything she’s ever done. She’s unapologetic, ruthless, vulnerable and whip smart; instantly becoming a top contender for best actress this year, and someone who I’m really hoping to pull out the win. I’m so happy that this was the last film I saw in a theatre instead of it being The Hunt (no offence to The Hunt), ending my year in film on one of the highest notes I could have. It’s ending is divisive and personally, I’m someone in favour of it. It’ll be available to rent on the 15th of this month for 48 hours so if you even so much as think you’re interested, I highly recommend watching this movie because one that will most likely stick with you for some time after. 

So in conclusion, this year could have been a complete dud for films, but luckily there are enough incredible filmmakers in the world and VOD releases to keep us fed till theatres are ready to safely reopen. Most of these films are available to rent on YouTube or are on a streaming site that you may or may not already be paying for! Either way, I hope some of these have interested you enough to check them out and I’m thrilled to be in a new year of film to review.