Looking Back: Adam Frazier Picks His Top 10 Favorite Movies of 2020
by Adam Frazier
January 4, 2021
Over the previous 12 months, I've seen more than 110 new releases, and I'm happy to report that it's been another fantastic year at the movies, despite not being able to actually go to the movies. Throughout 2020, we got to see new work from visionary filmmakers like Spike Lee, David Fincher, Chloe Zhao, Regina King, Lee Isaac Chung, Emerald Fennell, and Oz Perkins, whose dark fairytale Gretel & Hansel is one of the most atmospheric and aesthetically pleasing horror movies of the year. We also witnessed great performances from Viola Davis, Delroy Lindo, Frances McDormand, Chadwick Boseman, Carey Mulligan, Riz Ahmed, Gary Oldman, Elisabeth Moss, and Steven Yeun. And we were left in awe by cinematic art like Mank, News of the World, The Midnight Sky, Emma – works of impeccable craftsmanship by the cinematographers, production designers, SFX artists, and costume designers alike.
If you're into genre movies, 2020 brought us many impressive horror and science fiction titles like Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night, Brandon Cronenberg's mind-altering Possessor, Leigh Whannell's inventive The Invisible Man, and Richard Stanley's mesmerizing Color Out of Space. We also got to laugh at Matthew John Lawrence's endearing and energetic Uncle Peckerhead, were unsettled by Remi Weekes' His House, and charmed by Michael Matthews' post-apocalyptic coming-of-age film Love and Monsters. Egor Abramenko's Soviet-era creature feature Sputnik made us squirm, and Justin G. Dyck's wildly entertaining satanic shocker Anything for Jackson took us for an unforgettable ride.
For fans of documentaries, we were uplifted and inspired by films like Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, Dick Johnson is Dead, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street, You Cannot Kill David Arquette, Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson, and the cautionary tale on internet culture, Feels Good Man. We also got a bunch of rad music docs, including The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart, Spike Jonze's Beastie Boys Story, Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine, Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story, and Pick It Up! Ska in the '90s.
Look, we all know 2020 sucked… but it gave us plenty of great films and streaming series to keep us engaged and entertained during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. As we bid farewell to the worst year ever, here are My 10 Favorite Films from 2020. Please note that this does not mean they are the year's "best" films – you can visit GoldDerby for a complete list of Best Picture predictions if that's your thing. No, these are the movies that affected me most – those that resonate, that strike a chord. Also included with my Top 10 is a formidable list of honorable mentions, as well as my favorite horror movies and streaming series of the year (found at the bottom of the post). So what did I enjoy? Which film are my favorites? Let's find out…
#10. Color Out of Space
What's most interesting about Richard Stanley's big-screen version of Color Out of Space is that it's incredibly faithful to the source material and yet manages to be more than just another Lovecraft adaption. It's an over-the-top, candy-coated descent into cosmic insanity that feels like a spiritual sequel to Stuart Gordon's From Beyond. It's funny, disturbing, and unabashedly weird. We're talking about Nicholas Cage playing Jack Torrance, if Jack Torrance maintained an alpaca farm instead of the Overlook Hotel, driven mad not by ghosts but by a reality-splintering psychedelic alien lifeform. Cage flips between restrained and unhinged like a possessed light switch, completely selling us on the idea that he is under not only Stanley's influence but the hold of some unknown terror from the beyond. Color Out of Space has a distinct voice, a unique personality, and it simply doesn't fit in with the mainstream. The film is an alien force, beyond the human spectrum, attempting to communicate with us and, in the process, altering our way of thinking.
#9. Feels Good Man
Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini’s engrossing documentary Feels Good Man examines the Internet meme Pepe the Frog and its creator's fight to reclaim the character from members of the alt-right who have co-opted the image for their own purposes. Created in 2005 by cartoonist Matt Furie for the comic Boy's Club, Pepe was used in posts on social media platforms and Internet forums like 4chan before becoming a hate symbol wielded by white nationalists. Jones' cautionary tale illuminates the internet's ability to affect and shape society, with Furie attempting to fight against a machine of hate to redeem his beloved creation. One of the most important political films of the year – Feels Good Man is beautiful, depressing, terrifying, and uplifting all at once. Jones' feature debut is an unstoppable empathy machine that entertains, informs, and inspires.
Written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, this horror film is a phantasmagoric fever dream from another dimension. In one unshakeable sequence, Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) melts away slowly and reforms as Colin (Christopher Abbott). Behind the scenes, hollow wax shells of the actors' bodies are subjected to heat, so they slowly break down on camera in a practical SFX trick. The final product is as bewildering and uncomfortable as anything you've seen in the body horror genre. Liquified flesh drips upward as Tasya melts away to nothing, reborn drip-by-drip as Colin. A thousand faces scream in unison as the camera slides through a tunnel of slick, pink viscera. Everything — identity, gender, reality — in Cronenberg's world is fluid, porous, and penetrable. It's really quite something, and the fact that all the effects in Possessor were achieved in-camera makes it all the more impressive and shockingly real.
Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, the deeply affecting Minari follows a Korean-American family that moves into a single-wide trailer on Arkansas farmland in search of the American Dream. The title refers to a resilient herb that grows stronger after each cutting. With beautiful performances by Steven Yeun (Burning), Ye-ri Han, and Youn Yuh-jung, who plays the family's sly, foul-mouthed matriarch, Chung's cathartic film offers an intimate portrait of a farming family's struggle to find the "good dirt" needed to put down roots in '80s America. Exquisitely crafted by Chung and his cinematographer, Lachlan Milne (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Netflix's Stranger Things), Minari is sincere, often humorous, and intensely moving.
#6. The Invisible Man
The Invisible Man is a bold, fresh take on the iconic character: an innovative, filmmaker-driven approach that recontextualizes a classic story and makes it relevant again for modern audiences. Embodying fear, grief, madness, rage — showing strength and vulnerability at the same time — Elisabeth Moss creates an empathetic, relatable heroine that grounds the movie's premise in reality. Leigh Whannell continues to grow as a filmmaker and further his craft — when I see his name attached to a movie I get excited because I know it's coming from a place of genuine love for the genre and an eagerness to do something that's not only entertaining but emotionally and intellectually engaging. You may not exactly be able to see The Invisible Man, but Whannell's passion for storytelling and filmmaking is evident in every frame.
#5. Blow the Man Down
I was absolutely floored by co-directors Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy's feature film debut, Blow the Man Down. A black comedy set in a salty fishing village on Maine's rocky coast, the film follows Mary Beth (Morgan Saylor) and Priscilla Connolly (Sophie Lowe), two sisters entangled in a comedy of errors after one of them murders a murderer. To conceal their crime, the sisters must explore the seedy underbelly of their town Easter Cove and uncover the town matriarchs' darkest secrets. Equal parts Dolores Claiborne and Fargo, Savage Cole and Krudy's brilliant, laugh-out-loud screenplay is elevated further by fantastic performances from Saylor and Lowe, the power trio of Margo Martindale, June Squibb, and Annette O'Toole, and a Greek chorus of fisherman sing who sing the eponymous old sea shanty. Blow the Man Down is refreshing like a deep breath of brisk ocean air and not to be missed.
#4. The Vast of Night
In The Vast of Night, the feature debut of director Andrew Patterson, a young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and a charismatic radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) stumble upon a strange audio anomaly that may change their town – and the world as we know it – forever. A love letter to old-time radio programs like The Mercury Theatre on the Air (where Orson Welles caused a panic with his 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds) and Atomic Age science fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came from Outer Space, The Vast of Night tells a familiar story in an inventive way, utilizing a stage play structure with audio drama and modern filmmaking techniques to transcend the medium in a way that is compelling and utterly charming.
Written, directed, edited, and produced by Chloé Zhao (of The Rider), Nomadland is based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. The film stars Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Fern, a widow forced to leave her home in Empire, Nevada, after the local gypsum mine closes, effectively erasing the town. Living in her van, Fern traverses the West, taking on seasonal jobs— at an Amazon fulfillment center, a sugar beet farm, a South Dakota tourist trap—and meeting other nomads (portrayed by David Strathairn and a few real-life nomads including Linda May, Charlene Swankie, and Bob Wells) along the way. McDormand delivers a fearless, career-defining performance as a pioneer blazing an uncertain path while Joshua James Richards' soul-stirring cinematography captures the serenity and grandeur of the American West.
#2. Promising Young Woman
British actress and writer Emerald Fennell has become something of a fixture both in front of and behind the camera in the United Kingdom, from her appearances in movies (Albert Nobbs, The Danish Girl) and television (Call the Midwife, Netflix's The Crown) to her work as showrunner on the second season of BBC America's Killing Eve. Like the other directorial debuts on this list, Fennell's Promising Young Woman doesn't feel like the work of someone writing & directing their first feature, but rather an accomplished filmmaker whose razor-sharp writing, unique voice, and singular vision have branded them an auteur.
Funny, provocative, devastating, Promising Young Woman features an electric, career-best performance by Carey Mulligan (An Education) who plays Cassie, a young woman traumatized by a tragic event in her past who seeks vengeance against those who have wronged her. A black comedy revenge thriller, Promising Young Woman feels like Sofia Coppola's I Spit on Your Grave – stylish, exhilarating, and deliciously dark. With an impressive ensemble that includes Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Max Greenfield, Jennifer Coolidge, Laverne Cox, and Connie Britton, Fennell's auspicious, searingly relevant debut is effective in its aims to examine sexual violence and misogyny while entertaining us with her undeniable wit.
2020 was a big year for screenwriter Brian Duffield (Jane Got a Gun, The Babysitter). He co-wrote the aquatic horror flick Underwater and the post-apocalyptic adventure movie Love and Monsters, executive produced Netflix's The Babysitter: Killer Queen, and made his directorial debut with Spontaneous, a teen horror-comedy about blowing up. Literally. When students in their high school inexplicably start to explode, an unexpected romance blossoms between the seniors Mara (Katherine Langford) and Dylan (Charlie Plummer) as they struggle to survive in a world where each moment could be their last.
Adapting the 2016 young adult novel by Aaron Starmer, Duffield crafts a whip-smart, totally enchanting (and timely) love story that soars on fizzy, naturalistic performances by Langford and Plummer. To combat the random spontaneous combustion of America's future, the entire senior class is abducted by government scientists – like E.T. – to live in a plastic bubble. It's here that the film begins to take on another layer of meaning. Whether it's as a metaphor for teen suicide, gun violence, the COVID-19 pandemic, or just your everyday unpredictable aneurysm, there's an urgency to this story. Spontaneous is a celebration of youth that captures the inherent optimism and the fear of uncertainty that comes with growing up in a mad world where you have to live for today because there's no guarantee of tomorrow. Funny, sweet, and insanely gory, Brian Duffield's endearing directorial debut is my favorite movie of the year.
Honorable Mentions (#11-25): Soul, Palm Springs, Da 5 Bloods, Mank, Sound of Metal, Crip Camp, Bill & Ted Face the Music, One Night in Miami, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, The Midnight Sky, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Birds of Prey, Wolfwalkers, Dick Johnson is Dead, Pick It Up! Ska in the '90s.
My Top 25 Horror Movies of 2020: The Invisible Man, Possessor, Color Out of Space, After Midnight, Uncle Peckerhead, Anything for Jackson, Gretel & Hansel, His House, Get Duked!, La Llorona, Freaky, VFW, Sputnik, Impetigore, The Dark and the Wicked, Extra Ordinary, The Mortuary Collection, Hunter Hunter, Scare Me, Host, The Platform, The Lodge, Relic, Come to Daddy, The Pale Door.
Recommended Streaming Series: The Mandalorian, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Ted Lasso, What We Do in the Shadows, The Outsider, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I'll Be Gone in the Dark, The Chef Show, Heaven's Gate: The Cult of Cults, The Ripper.
What do you think of Adam's Top 10 films of 2020? Do you agree or disagree with his picks?