“We are gathered here today in remembrance of The Motion Picture. To bid it adieu, and to share some of our fondest memories from its final year. Thank you very much to Netflix for providing the catering at this difficult time.”
That’s how I opened last year’s top ten list — with a mock eulogy for the Death of Cinema. I went on to cite films like Joker, Queen & Slim, The Irishman, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Uncut Gems, Ad Astra, and especially 1917 — films that nodded to the pictures past, but were also fresh and exhilarating — as leaving me hopeful about the future of the big screen experience.
I signed off with: “If there’s one thing I’m certain of heading into 2020, it’s this. The movies will live to fight another day. See you in the next decade.”
Now here we are.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have succumbed to COVID-19, plus many more worldwide. Jobs and homes have been lost. Our psyches are collectively scarred, our life’s progress stalled, our prospects dimming. We’ll be reckoning with the consequences of the Trump administration’s failure to appropriately respond to this health crisis for years, if not for the rest of our lives. There’s been a lot more at stake this year than just the fate of the movies. I can’t begin to mourn what we lost in entertainment without first acknowledging all the other monumental losses we’ve suffered this year.
But since we’re here to rank things, I’ll go out on a limb and say 2020 ranks as the #1 Most Troubling Year in the History of Movies. This is coming off a year most cinephiles would cite as a high point of the 2010s, or the 21st century at large. A year in which women and people of color had more representation in the awards season conversation than ever before, a year that led to the first foreign language Best Picture winner in Parasite. There was so much reason to be optimistic heading into this year. And then everything changed.
I’ve put Top Ten lists together for twenty years now, and this is the first time it’s felt more like a dirge than a celebration. That’s not necessarily because the movies themselves were demonstrably worse — but a lot of films that were supposed to open in 2020 never did, and many of those that did did so with a whimper and their tail between their legs, their hopes for a splashy opening weekend dashed to pieces. The films that did appear in theaters did so controversially and unwisely, with box office grosses that would be outright embarrassing under normal conditions. There were no real cinematic victories from 2020. The only real metric of success was surviving at all.
Cinema has previously endured American horrors like Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The fallout for the arts was less severe then. Japan’s attack came at the tail end of 1941, a year that gave us perhaps the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane; the United States’ entry into World War II didn’t stop the other greatest film of all time, Casablanca, from going into production a few months later. Sixty years later, when another catastrophic attack brought the nation to its knees, it didn’t make much of a dent in the movies. Fall 2001 still brought us Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring, kicking off two of the most profitable franchises of this century.
Production in Hollywood has halted before, thanks to notable strikes, but nothing has ever caused the entire machine to come to a screeching halt the way it did in 2020. The disruption of the 1918 flu pandemic actually gave rise to the studio system, ushering in the Golden Age of Hollywood. This time around, it feels like cinema as we know it is knocking at death’s door. Nobody knows what’s going to happen, of course, but it’s certain that things will never return to the way they were before.
There was too much going on in the world for fiction to get much of a foothold, anyway. We sealed ourselves off and became shut-ins, with only our own smaller screens to amuse and inform us. We were desperate for these windows to the outside world, but we couldn’t afford to escape into fantasy for long. Our stark reality demanded our attention, almost every hour of every day.
When we look back on 2020, the pop culture that comes to mind won’t be movies. It won’t be TV, music, books, or podcasts, either. The year’s sharpest comedy, most gut-wrenching drama, most rousing spectacle, and most stomach-churning horror were not found on the big screen, but on the smallest ones, as we scrolled through social media on our phones. The civilian-shot video of George Floyd’s murder will go down as 2020’s most agonizing tear-jerker. The protests that ensued were 2020’s true summer blockbuster. Raging forest fires plunged us into our very own apocalyptic disaster flick. The events surrounding our November election were an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. And COVID-19 was the kind of global sensation we usually only see from a Star Wars movie. Movies provide escapism — but there was no escaping from 2020.
It was the year that put us on screen. Not because we wanted to be, because we had to be. We existed only in digital boxes. The lives of our friends and family played out on our laptops and phones like little movies. We spent plenty of time watching filmed entertainment — clocking more collective screen time than any other year, I’d wager — but what we really craved from our screens in 2020 was connection to one another. At times, it felt like the information we shared digitally was fundamental to keeping us alive. (Or at least to keeping us from running out of bathroom essentials or getting clobbered by the cops.) In 2020, we were no longer just consuming popular culture — we were making it, we were distributing it, we were living it. How could any fiction compete?
Did we laugh and cry at the movies in 2020? Or was it at the video calls we had with friends and family? Our social media feeds? The goddamned news?
If a silver lining must be found amidst the rubble, 2020 showcased films helmed by women and people of color in a major way. There’s no longer just a token film or two from a Black, brown, or female filmmaker in the awards conversation. It’s possible that they’ll outnumber the films directed by white men in the upcoming Best Picture lineup, which is a striking contrast to past years.
The films that did open in 2020 were smaller and quieter than the usual fare. That’s in stark contrast to the year itself, which was as brash and grim and tiresome as one of Zach Snyder’s DC tentpole movies. In a year without blockbusters, I managed to make it through the entirety of 2020 without seeing a single superhero film. No remakes, no reboots, no spin-offs, no prequels. And the only sequel, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, was motivated by new opportunities for political satire —Trump’s circus clown presidency — rather than just cashing in on a recent hit. (There were 14 years between Borat films, after all.) Comic books and cash grabs were not totally absent, but in a scattered, chaotic year, they were easy to ignore. The void they left made it popular for original films like Da 5 Bloods and Palm Springs to dominate the film conversation instead.
We’ll never truly know what the “biggest hits” of 2020 were. Box office stats for this year are useless. Streamers rarely share any meaningful data. The top domestic theatrical grosses are frozen in time, representing only the first two months of the year. Nothing released in March or later — not even Tenet — made a dent in the Top 10. Instead, you’ll find1917 and Little Women, opening wide in January after Christmas Day releases last year, as some of the year’s biggest earners. Nobody in the world, at this time last year, would have anticipated that Greta Gerwig’s Little Women would outgross Wonder Woman 1984 in 2020, or that 1917 would rake in more than three times the revenue a new Christopher Nolan film did. Adaptations of novels by H.G. Wells, Jack London, and Louisa May Alcott are some of the year’s biggest moneymakers. It’s a shame it had to happen this way, but it’s kind of nice to see.
But these are shoddy consolations in a bleak year. There are better days are ahead, we think, but when will they be here? In the meantime, the losses keep coming. Can we really expect a global smash like 2020 won’t get a sequel?
I came out of 2019 so optimistic about the future of movies.
What a difference a year makes.
10. LAST AND FIRST MEN
“The discovery of this doom kindled in us unfamiliar emotions. Outwardly, everyone behaved with perfect serenity, but inwardly, every mind was in turmoil as we faced the sudden destruction of our world.”
What better capper for a top ten list in 2020 than a film about the total extinction of mankind?
Olaf Stapledon’s sci-fi novel Last And First Men: A Story Of The Near And Far Future was written in 1930. The film adaptation was first shown at the Manchester International Film Festival in 2017. But it wasn’t until 2020 that it was available beyond special one-off event performances accompanied by live orchestras. Last And First Men is Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s last and first film as a director; the musician behind brilliant, game-changing scores to Sicario and Arrival, amongst others, passed away unexpectedly in 2018, leaving sound artist Yair Elazar Glotman to complete the film.
Obviously, COVID-19 wasn’t on anybody’s mind during the making of this movie. Yet Last And First Men does more than any other 2020 film at conveying the cosmos’ cold indifference to our fates in the face of a global crisis, dramatizing a collective reckoning with an extinction-level event. Its story spans billions of years but features no props, costumes, or special effects. Not a single actor appears on screen in its 72-minute runtime. The only action is the cinematography — pushing in or pulling out on the otherworldly monuments that serve as this film’s only stars. Shot in black-and-white on 16mm, one of these “Spomenik” monuments inspires more awe and wonder than all the CGI concoctions in the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined.
The story behind the Spomeniks themselves is worthy of a documentary. Scattered through the countryside of the Republic of Yugoslavia, they were designed by local architects in the 60s and 70s to commemorate World War II — but they look as alien as the mysterious Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Last And First Men doesn’t provide any context for these strange and astonishing shapes; Jóhannsson glides above, below, and through them, invoking them as the ideal visual accompaniment to Stapledon’s grandiose fiction. The monuments feel at once ancient and futuristic, as if the entirety of mankind’s lifespan is contained within each structure.
The film is narrated by Tilda Swinton, represented as an oscillating dot who addresses us from two billion years in the future, when a more enlightened humankind faces Armageddon. They reach back to present day to share some wisdom of what’s to come. (Is there any more ideal casting than Swinton as a highly evolved being from the very distant future? She’s the closest thing to a space goddess in Hollywood’s rolodex.)
As fractured as we feel as a nation, and as a species, this year, Last And First Men is oddly reassuring in the way it speaks to all of humankind as a single entity, imagining a future filled with logic and intelligence and scientific reasoning. It makes the awfulness of the Trump presidency feel like just a temporary blip on the radar. “Existence has always been precarious,” Swinton coos from beyond, turning the novel’s severe prose into cool doomsday poetry. “At any stage of its career, humanity might have been exterminated by some slight alteration to its chemical environment. By a more than usually malignant microbe. By a radical change of climate. By the manifold effects of its own folly. Or by some celestial event.” We’ve faced most of that in 2020 alone. It’s comforting to think we might still be around in another couple billion years.
Last And First Men is a mesmerizing sci-fi epic in the minimalist tradition of La Jetée and World Of Tomorrow. It isn’t exactly a documentary, but it isn’t a traditional narrative, either. As we debate more than ever about blurred lines between different forms of media, it’s fitting to crown my Top Ten of 2020 with such a unique art film, something unlike anything I’ve ever seen. In a year largely devoid of the manufactured spectacle we expect from superhero blockbusters and franchise space operas, Last And First Men is a glacial counterpoint, as still, serene, and thought-provoking as most tentpoles are frantic, loud, and empty-headed.
But the real showstopper is Jóhannsson’s haunting, epic score — amongst his best — that feels like it, too, may have traveled across time and space to reach our ears. His untimely death robbed us of an untold number of magnificent film scores when it felt like he was just getting started. The future of film scoring won’t be the same without him, but in Last And First Men, at least we have a superb outro.
“I did something unexpected today.”
No single film could possibly speak to the entire ordeal of living through 2020. We tended to scrounge for bits and pieces of relevance from a number of very different films this year. Some viewers found the time-bending claustrophobia of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things best evoked 2020. Others cited the contagious paranoia of She Dies Tomorrow as their “most 2020” pick. The film I heard the most about in this respect was Palm Springs, with locked-down viewers relating to the Groundhog’s Day sameness of days that repeat ad nauseam.
If your pandemic felt like an Andy Samberg rom-com — well, that’s nice for you. Mine felt more like Swallow, a queasy drama about a young woman who makes good with a rich beau, but is left with nothing to do with her days after he heads off to work. It depicts the same sameness Palm Springs does, but without the magic trick; it’s all the more stifling for showing what could, and does, really happen when a vibrant reasonably young person feels stifled in their own home. Hunter’s got a big house all to herself. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go. So eventually, she begins swallowing harmful objects — marbles, thumbtacks, batteries — to soothe her housebound anxiety.
Pica is a real psychiatric disorder, often accompanying other mental maladies. For the record, I did not resort to ingesting inedible objects in my own lockdown experience, but this woman’s desperation to escape her domestic confines did resonate with me. It was hard, in 2020, to encounter anything surprising or unexpected (outside of the dreadful news cycle). Hunter’s extreme acts almost start making sense, the more we identify with her need to shake her boring, airless existence up a bit.
There’s something “off” about Hunter. It’s immediately clear that this awkward young woman — who comes across as more of a girl, really — is an outlier in the mannered, monied world she’s married into. But in her fancy new well-to-do habitat, it’s not polite to talk about such things. Haley Bennett’s off-kilter performance is perfectly pitched to convey Hunter’s discomfort in “the perfect life.” Richie (Austin Stowell), her hapless hubby, doesn’t get it — but his mother Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) does. She cuts Hunter down to size as needed, without ever saying anything impolite. It’s only once Hunter’s malady starts to inconvenience everyone else that they take any notice of her unhappiness. They don’t resolve to make her happier — they just resolve to make her misery less noticeable in polite society.
Swallow is a better metaphor for society’s narrow-mindedness about gender roles than it is a serious examination of a medical disorder. Hunter is the girl who comes from nothing and then gets everything, but this plush life comes at a steep, unspoken price — she’s supposed to play the Barbie doll in this dream house. No complaints, no surprises, and no independent thought are welcomed in this gilded cage. Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has had a fluid relationship with gender himself; the suffocating effect of gender expectations on those who don’t always want to conform infuses the film with a palpable sense of dread. The all-consuming femininity in the pristine production design — all floral patterns and lush textures and plenty of pink — starts to feel like a trap. Eventually, we learn more about Hunter’s backstory, how gendered violence shaped her sense of self. As Hunter’s freaky snacks become more and more life-threatening, Swallow becomes a potent metaphor for a woman’s control over her own body. Hunter’s wealthy in-laws want her to spawn their grandchildren. They assert an increasing level of control over what she puts in her body — because they want something out of it.
I didn’t always feel like I had a right to complain in 2020. I was healthy and employed and had the means to stay safe. I realized I was more fortunate than so many people. I tried to count those blessings. But I also frequently felt like I was going out of my mind in my own living space, and there was no one there to acknowledge it. No matter how long our isolation lasts, I don’t think I’ll ever eat a thumbtack, but I appreciated Swallow for its portrayal of domestic desperation, of feeling tremendous anxiety because of what isn’t happening instead of what is. Mirabella-Davis’ film is exquisitely crafted, niftily showing off Haley Bennett’s talents as a leading lady. It’s also stifling, unpredictable, and guaranteed to make you squeamish — the ideal cinematic companion piece for 2020.
8. MATTHIAS & MAXIME
“I don’t get it. This isn’t us.”
I watched over 600 films in 2020, by far the most I’ve ever watched in a single year. That includes shorts and features, narrative films and documentaries, spanning more than 100 years across the history of cinema. Amongst them, Best Picture winners, titles from the AFI’s 100 Greatest Films list, and bona fide masterpieces from all over the world. Nearly all of these were viewed in my own home. So, in preparing this year’s Top Ten, I had to rely more than usual on the films that reached through the rabble and personally grabbed me in some special or more visceral way.
With the Oscars extending their qualifications through the end of February, my own picks feel particularly untethered to awards season; I’ve seen nearly all of the major contenders already, but many weren’t yet widely available in 2020. It’s liberating, in a way, to make this list so far ahead of the Academy’s final word on the Year in Cinema. I’m less restrained this year by what everyone else thinks is good, freer to pick the films that spoke, perhaps, to me and me alone.
That’s not to say that there’s anything untoward in placing Matthias & Maxime in my Top Ten. It’s not Sonic The Hedgehog. It’s just that it’s a film tailor-made for my sensibilities, one that’s been skipped on other “Best Of” lists in favor of consensus faves like First Cow and Minari. I liked many of the films being celebrated in other year-end rankings, including some that narrowly missed my own Top Ten. But this year, in the massive churn of movies I consumed, with so few evenings otherwise occupied, it felt particularly imperative that I laud the films that really made an impression on me — whatever the reason behind that impression may be.
The reason, in Matthias & Maxime‘s case, is the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Elvis Presley’s “Always On My Mind.” It plays over the introduction of a supporting character played by Harris Dickinson, who bops shamelessly along with the music as he rides up an escalator, in one of those unexpected cinematic moments where sound and image combine to delight out of nowhere. Xavier Dolan is the king of kitschy, slightly awkward needle drops that are somehow also just right. Matthias & Maxime has more than one of these, but this scene in particular brought an instant smile to my face. That wasn’t always easy to do in 2020, so here is Matthias & Maxime, an ode to joy at the movies. I loved a lot of films I watched in 2020 — new and old alike — but only a handful in my home viewing were capable of reaching through the screen and slapping me awake. Dolan did that, in the most indelible, ridiculous way.
That said, I actually put off watching Matthias & Maxime for several months after it became available for viewing in the United States. Dolan skates so close to the line of bad taste — in his storytelling, his music choices, his camerawork, his melodramatic moods — and almost, almost goes over, every time. He harkens back to classics from beloved auteurs — this one, perhaps, a nod to Truffaut’s Jules And Jim — but is also heavily influenced by millennial pop culture, unashamed to name drop Good Will Hunting or Dragon Ball Z or prominently feature Britney Spears’ “Work Bitch.”
In Matthias & Maxime, a friend’s little sister asks two longtime buddies to make out on screen for her student film. Maxime (Dolan) is game; Matthias (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas) only goes along with it because he lost a bet. The premise seems tee up another rote gay-guy-loves-straight-dude semi-requited romance. I’ve seen too many of those. I wasn’t eager for Dolan’s take on lust in the closet, especially since he’s already advanced well beyond Queer Cinema 101 in his impressive career. I was worried that this might be the film of his that alienated me; I didn’t want it to taint my high opinion of his other works.
As it turns out, Matthias & Maxime is and isn’t what I was expecting. It is, because it still follows the broad trajectory of those story beats, and it isn’t, because it skips all the usual handwringing over defining one’s sexuality. It’s a film in which being gay or straight or bisexual or whatever is irrelevant. Some characters are hung up on adhering to gender and sexuality norms, but it’s not ultimately that important to what transpires between the title characters. Were they gay or bi before? Are they gay or bi now? Dolan ignores these questions. Maxime and Matthias kissed, and though it was only for some silly movie, both feel that their friendship has changed afterward — and both are in total denial about it before they finally express what they want from one another. These characters may go on to date women, or men, or both, or each other. Dolan sees no reason why a spark of attraction between two men should come to define them. His characters are freed from being gay or straight, and the movie is similarly unshackled from being labeled. It’s about a single connection between two humans. They could be women, men, or one guy and one girl, without changing any major story beats.
Released in a year that didn’t otherwise contain a lot of great love stories, Matthias & Maxime is unabashedly, classically romantic — a certain sequence in particular is gush-worthy. But there’s also plenty of screen time spent on casual banter and camaraderie with Matthias and Maxime’s tight-knit group of friends. Their dynamic feels so authentic, it’s like we’re part of the gang ourselves. If you’ve missed out on intimacy in 2020 — either between friends or lovers — Matthias & Maxime contains a welcome dose of the stuff. Affinity and affection were in short supply this year; at least we have the movies to remind us what love is like.
“This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the magic of the movies.”
The past year wasn’t a big one for the Hollywood masters. Major releases from Steven Spielberg and Dennis Villeneuve, amongst others, skittered off to 2021 in hopes of greener pastures. Only a small handful of films from established auteurs made it to the screen — mostly, thanks to Netflix. Theatrical releases are an afterthought to them, anyway — no need to wait out the storm.
So, ironically enough, some of the most purely cinematic films of 2020 were always meant to be delivered directly to our homes. Mainstream viewers probably didn’t clamor to watch the talky, black-and-white Mank the way they flocked to Wonder Woman 1984, but for die-hard cinephiles, a glossy new David Fincher pic was about as big a cinematic event as we’d get from this year. Even before COVID pushed much of the competition out of the race, awards prognosticators had their eyes on Mank, wondering if this would be the prestige pic that finally earned Netflix the Best Picture Oscar they so blatantly crave. It opened as scheduled in early December to the highest expectations for any film this year — and some of the most divided critical response, too.
At first glance, it appears Mank may be another starry-eyed puff piece like The Artist, emulating a familiar style without quite locating the soul that made it special in the first place. The pace is zippy, the dialogue snappy, on-screen chyrons ape screenplay format to tell us where and when we are, and there are occasional scratches and cigarette burns on what is otherwise one of the year’s most pristinely presented films.
Well, David Fincher wants you to get comfortable in old Hollywood, because he’s about to shake things up. Mank is a Trojan horse with a bomb in its belly. It looks and feels like a nice little Oscar darling, but it’s actually a stinging critique of good ol’ Tinseltown, skewering the Mayers and Weinsteins who didn’t stop at just selling their own souls to rule the roost. They bought and sold everyone else’s, knowing they’d get away with it in a land that peddles dreams. Fincher sheds light on old Hollywood’s cowardice and corruption — its refusal to take a stand against Hitler, lest it affect foreign box office; allowing the Red Scare and McCarthyism to torpedo many powerless artists’ careers. The studios make propagandistic “films” to stoke fear of socialism in the working class — portraying Republican values as synonymous with American values to sink Upton Sinclair’s run for governor. It’s fake news, but who better to produce it than Hollywood? Take a look at your Twitter feed today and find a prominent Republican denouncing Joe Biden’s “radical socialist agenda” to see it all happening again on an even bigger stage. Mank may look 80 years past its prime, but it’s no museum piece. Its themes are as pressing now as they ever were.
Mank could be angrier or more righteous, but the film, like the title character, acknowledges it and moves on, because that’s show business; as much as it changes, it never really does. It’s also a valentine to screenwriters everywhere — the unknown, the underappreciated, the unthanked-from-the-podium. For these two hours, it is the writer, for once, who gets his day in the sun. Mank exchanges witty repartee with comely dames, rubs elbows with the richest and most influential names of the day, comes up with the snappiest comebacks at just the right moment. He’s a boozy old egghead waltzing through a classy Hollywood picture like he’s Cary Grant. Only a screenwriter would imagine such glory for one of his own.
You might expect to find David Fincher, a venerated auteur himself, behind a film that championed Orson Welles, rather than this one, which pokes holes in the esteemed young director’s legacy. That’s another way that Mank scribbles out a love letter to writers — not just Herman Mankiewicz, but also Jack, David Fincher’s father, for whom this script was a labor of love up until his death in 2003. Jack Fincher never saw success as a screenwriter, until now, allowing Mank to honor two underappreciated scribes simultaneously. Mank looks great, especially in the way it conjures up the ghost of Citizen Kane with certain visuals, but this is a writer’s film through and through. The dialogue snaps, crackles, and pops, with delectable lines packed on top of each other so tightly you’ll need to watch it two or three times to catch them all. The interplay between Gary Oldman’s Mank and Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davis is particularly punchy, especially during a nighttime stroll outside the Hearst Castle that plays like the standout scene from your favorite Hollywood classic. It’s magic.
It takes some moxie to release a verbose, black-and-white drama aimed squarely at Hollywood history buffs in 2020. The studios have largely abandoned lavish prestige pics like Mank — and like Citizen Kane, for that matter. With Roma, The Irishman, and now Mank, Netflix has shown a willingness to give major artists free reign (and buckets of money) to make whatever they want. The streaming behemoth has done more to snuff out the theatrical experience than any major player in the business, but it also craves Hollywood’s affection. That puts cinephiles in a curious position. Do we love Netflix for making Mank? Or do we hate it for crushing everyone else who might have made it?
Mank was released alongside the dismaying news that Warner Bros. would obliterate all theatrical windows for its 2021 releases. It hit Hollywood like a ton of bricks, upending an entire industry in a year that was already ruinous. In the short term, that’s a sound business decision, a surefire way to draw subscribers to HBO Max. It also spits in the faces of the artists it’s relying on to make those movies, and tarnishes nearly 100 years of a golden legacy. The move made clear that there is no Warner Bros. anymore — there is only its dreary, dispiriting parent company, AT&T. Recent developments at Disney are just as dismaying. Nobody calling the shots at these companies cares about movies anymore; they care about “content.” Netflix isn’t much better, but it’s about the only place a film like Mank — or Citizen Kane — gets made these days.
I used my time in isolation this year to watch dozens of classic Hollywood films. By the end of it, I was more than ready to be immersed in Fincher’s talky Tinseltown fantasy, which takes Hollywood to task while lovingly paying homage to it. Show business has always been ruthless, Mank reminds us. The tycoons holding the purse strings always call the shots — and the art always finds a way to survive. In 2020, it was just comforting to see that they’ll still make at least one like they used to.
6. THE HATER
“Capable, smart, insolent, fast. You could do so many other things.”
Increasingly over the past decade, we’ve begun to look at technology with a wary eye, questioning whether its convenient habit-forming ubiquity in our daily lives might be shutting out or even replacing the real world.
But in 2020, there was no real world. Our Big Tech overlords became our sole saviors, the only way we could connect to jobs, education, entertainment, food, family, friends — all the things we used to leave our homes for. Early in the pandemic, they were a lifeline to loved ones, replacing game nights and happy hours with pale Zoom imitations. After we grew fatigued of those, they became essential tools for sharing information and eyewitness accounts of authoritarian brutality against protestors over the summer, for maintaining some semblance of community during those infernal curfews. They allowed us to call out bigots and bullies, allowing us to digitally stand with the Black Lives Matter movement if we did not wish to risk protesting in person. As fall came on, they helped us share crucial information about getting out to vote, and to stay on top of the roadblocks — like the willful sabotage of the USPS — that could have been disastrous to our democray had we not been able to quickly mobilize and come up with solutions. At times, they were, quite literally, lifesavers.
And just as social media became as pivotal in our lives as it’s ever been, it also reached peak toxicity. The internet has been a precarious place to hang out since its inception, but the last five years have made it almost unbearable. Twitter and Facebook exacerbated the conflicts in our divided nation to an excruciating degree, especially surrounding this year’s highly consequential election. Technology is a necessary evil in our lives — especially necessary, this year — but it’s a scourge to our democracy.
Jan Komasa likely had a better 2020 than most of us did. Corpus Christi, his drama about a recently released prisoner posing as a priest, was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar earlier this year. His follow-up, The Hater, won the Best International Narrative Feature at this year’s Tribeca. The Hater stars Maciej Musialowski as a conniving social climber who, after being kicked out of his posh school for plagiarism, takes up a career as a professional internet troll — ruining other people’s lives for a living.
You don’t have look far to find a real-world analog for this brand of evil. Pick up your phone right now and find it on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. The Hater‘s depiction of the internet as an utterly amoral, anything-goes Wild West is, perhaps, the most accurate cinematic document of our digital age to date. It begins like a Patricia Highsmith thriller, as an ambitious outcast named Tomasz insinuates himself into the lives of the wealthy and well-connected, who never suspect the self-dealing machinations that got him there. But as Tomasz sets his sights on taking down a progressive politician, The Hater becomes more like a modern-day Taxi Driver, with one key update for the internet age. In 1976, Travis Bickle could only wreak havoc by picking up a gun. In 2020, Tomasz can do just as much damage by picking up his phone.
Tomasz stirs up a white nationalist backlash with a few keystrokes and a whole lot of xenophobic vitriol. His fake news spreads like wildfire. Soon he soon finds a gullible gun-toting gamer to carry out his dirty work IRL. Like most right-wing nutjobs, this vicious stooge never suspects that his bigotry is being exploited for some fat cat’s gain — or that he’ll be the ultimate loser in this exchange. Look to the story of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old MAGA conservative who shot two protestors last August, and The Hater starts feeling less like a psychological thriller, more like a documentary.
The Hater borrows Tom Ripley’s chameleonic, upwardly mobile malice and Travis Bickle’s politicized rage, pairing them with The Social Network‘s vision of Mark Zuckerberg as cutthroat genius. Tomasz eventually orchestrates a plan so demonic, he might best be compared to The Dark Knight’s chaotic killer Joker, minus any hint of a smile. If you can imagine all that seething sociopathy rolled up into one movie, that’s a hint at where the film’s bleak, merciless denouement plans to leave us. It’s hard to stomach, but it’s also very 2020, in that baseless mayhem and deplorable rancor rule the day.
This diabolic reaction to rejection is a very cinematic one, the kind we’ve seen many times — in Taxi Driver, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, in The Social Network, in Joker, and so on — but it mirrors the motivations of real world misanthropes in becoming radicalized, the supposed “lone wolves” whose doughy, dead-eyed visages end up splashed across the news following yet another terrorist tragedy. Real political violence may not be as coolly calculated as The Hater fantasizes it to be, but there’s no question that bigotry is being weaponized on social media these days — and certain powerful populists love it, stoke it, feed off it.
Tomasz rattles off the most vile, gratuitous rhetoric imaginable with glee, but Komasa never clues us in on whether or not he actually believes this hateful lunacy. That’s beside the point. In 2020, when a Travis Bickle type asks his mirror, “You talkin’ to me?”, the mirror answers — because it’s connected to thousands of other misanthropes just like him. What unites these angry young men is not the cause itself, which ultimately bears little consequence to their own lives, but the shared contempt for a class of people who is smarter, richer, and happier than they could ever hope to be. The outrage itself becomes a drug. Millions of Trump supporters are high on indignation as we speak.
We’ve been ringing our hands and racking our brains for the past four years trying to make it make sense. It doesn’t. That’s what makes it so slippery, so hard to stop. The Hater isn’t about American politics — this is a global crisis — but no other fictional film takes us into the MAGA state of mind like this one. It’s not about the man, it’s not about the politics. It’s about the hate.
Reprehensible, chilling, and all too real, The Hater is the only film as nasty and unforgiving as 2020 itself was. Happy New Year.
5. LOVERS ROCK
“No, I’ve got no time to play your silly games…”
Steve McQueen directed three films in the last decade, and every one of them made my Top Ten lineup. 2011’s Shame, 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, and 2018’s Widows were all amongst my favorites of those years. Now he shows up in 2020, dropping five films over five consecutive weeks. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.
There’s plenty of debate about whether McQueen’s Small Axe should be considered a TV series or a collection of five discrete films. For me, there’s no question. Each piece has a distinctly different rhythm and energy, not to mention different characters and time periods. Each can be watched independently, needing no past knowledge of previous “episodes,” requiring no further resolution.
Lovers Rock, in particular, feels like a piece of art unto itself. The second Small Axe film unfolds over the course of a single day, beginning with an assortment of characters preparing for a house party. It then proceeds to follow party guests as they arrive, mix, mingle, drink, and dance. McQueen is in no hurry to get to any particular plot points — this is a mood piece, the polar opposite of Mangrove, the previous piece — and that mood just happens to be one we’re sorely lacking in 2020.
The film ebbs and flows with the energy of a good night out, alternating between dance breaks, hookups, and trips to the bathroom or the bar, just like we would at a real party. McQueen hits every beat right — the rowdy, high energy enthusiasm at the beginning of the night, the hazy winddown toward the end. Early on, the girls revel in “Kung Fu Fighting,” perfectly capturing the guilty thrill of rocking out to a kitschy hit you didn’t know you wanted to hear until the DJ laid it down. Later, the energy on the dance floor is markedly different once the ladies have departed and it’s mostly men in the room. In stark contrast to their mating call of early evening, here the boys dance their aggression and repression out, some joyful, some ferocious. In the standout musical moment, everyone sings along with Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” — a fitting anthem for the Black experience in a white-ruled world.
Lovers Rock eventually hones in on a spark of chemistry between Martha (Amarah-Jae St Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward), following the budding romance in something like real time (in the serendipitous spirit of Before Sunrise). But threats from the real world never entirely wane, as partygoers avoid confrontations with racist neighbors and try not to attract attention from the police. The film contains little slices of violence, too, like when Martha rescues another young woman from sexual assault. Like the genre of reggae music that gives this film its name, this space provides a safe haven for Black immigrants — something to take solace in, a place to kick up their heels and relax away from the prejudices of the world. But as the other Small Axe films make clear, violation of this sanctuary can happen any time a white man wants it to, and there’s little that can be done about it — especially in 1980. Characters in the rest of Small Axe are attacked and persecuted; Lovers Rock is the piece that shows us exactly what they’re being robbed of when their homes and hangouts are made unsafe.
The other Small Axe films tackle weighty, important subject matter surrounding racist injustice for West Indian immigrants in London. Mangrove, Alex Wheatle, and Red, White And Blue tackle failures in the justice system from three distinct angles, while the final piece, Education, shows us how early the options for this community begin narrowing. In a year that saw scores of Americans take to the streets to protest the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives lost to lethal force, it was tempting to include one of the McQueen films that directly examined systematic oppression by the police. Depictions of such tragedies have made my Top Ten lists over the past several years — last year’s undervalued Queen & Slim, McQueen’s own Widows in 2018, and 2017’s harrowing Detroit, starring Red, White And Blue’s John Boyega as a similarly conflicted cop.
Ultimately, though, it felt like this moment called for a celebration of Black joy instead of more Black suffering. That’s part of what makes McQueen’s collection so vital — in five films, he has the space to do both. And as good as each film is, Lovers Rock truly is a standout for so many reasons, not least of which is that says so much by saying nothing at all — letting the music, the movement, and the mood say what words can’t express. Lovers Rock would be great with or without the rest of the series, but seeing the other films brings more meaning to this lovely, breezy hangout film, and seeing Lovers Rock raises the stakes for the rest.
It’s a joyful, sensual celebration of the young and the aimless, of nights when worries are left at the door and everyone comes together on the dance floor, of the slow-building excitement of clicking with a beautiful stranger over the course of a night. It’s also a nonstop onslaught of COVID no-nos — people packed into a small indoor space, bumping and grinding, sharing cigarettes, making out. The effect it has on us in 2020, after months of abstention from these very activities, is one McQueen could not have intended, adding to its inherent nostalgia for bygone days. A carefree evening in the company of strangers is one COVID’s many casualties; ditto the chance to make a new acquaintance and see where the night takes us. We’ve lost that. Lovers Rock plays now like a requiem for good times and gatherings. It may even make you long for the nights when your friend unceremoniously ditched you at a party because she met a cute guy.
My rewatch of Lovers Rock ended up being my final film viewing of 2020. No film could more fittingly simulate the kind of New Year’s Eve I sure as hell wasn’t having this year. In two viewings, I still haven’t been able to get through the “Kung Fu Fighting” dance break without playing it back again immediately.
In a scant 70 minutes, Lovers Rock gives us so much — especially a poignant reminder of all the good times we missed out on this year.
4. FEELS GOOD MAN
“It’s just, like, fucking garbage world.”
The only film I saw in 2020 that could accurately be described as a “comic book movie” is Feels Good Man, an artful doc that tracks one meme’s journey from fringe comic curiosity all the way to the White House. It’s a deep dive into the unforeseeable fate of an animated amphibian, an attempt to explain, step by step, how the internet can turn the most basic, banal nothing into a superstar, using one particularly consequential example. It’s also a meditation on how anger and resentment manifest online, sucking power from each successive user who likes and shares and comments, until that passive rage is strong enough to create movements, change the way we think, inspire real world violence, topple democracies, and plunge the most powerful nation in the world into utter chaos. It’s the true story version of The Hater’s violent cyberthriller. And it is, without a doubt, the year’s most terrifying film.
The meme in question is comic book sidekick Pepe the Frog, dreamed up by unassuming cartoonist Matt Furie for his Boy’s Club zine in 2005. Pepe’s catchphrase “feels good man” originally applied to his habit of pulling his pants all the way down to go pee. But the internet excels at glorifying the random, turning the least likely suspects into household names and catchphrases. Pepe was soon adopted by disgruntled troll types on 4chan, who saw him as a symbol of casual indulgence — it may not be popular, it may not be sensible, it may not be right, but if it “feels good,” they were doing it anyway. After a lifetime of feeling unwanted and overlooked, a cartoon frog granted them carte blanche to do whatever they want. Eventually, that grew to include committing mass murder and electing a total idiot to the most powerful position in the world. Whatever upsets the “normies” is fair game on 4chan — the more upsetting the better.
What really fascinates about Feels Good Man, however, has less to do with Furie and Pepe. It’s what Pepe reflects about internet culture and the state of American politics at large in 2020. “We memed a man into the White House,” Pepe fans bragged on 4chan in 2016. Feels Good Man makes a compelling argument that Trump never would have made it to the Oval Office without Pepe’s help.
Pepe is a cartoon frog used to troll sincerity. Donald Trump is a reckless dumbo who’d be living in his parents’ basement if he hadn’t inherited enough wealth to continuously fail upward. He’s all id, practically a cartoon sidekick himself. Pepeheads claim the meme is about “owning your loserdom,” and while Trump himself certainly wouldn’t ever frame his trash TV presidency that way, it makes sense that a bunch of jobless basement-dwellers would rally around a candidate who wears his lack of qualification and credentials as if it were its own badge of honor.
The internet can turn human beings into the worst caricatures of themselves. Its anonymity provides shelter for racism, misogyny, homophobia, and violent fantasy — especially in certain dark corners. Outrage easily gets out of hand when the opponent is a digital screen instead of a person. We’ve all rolled our eyes at someone who posted a workout selfie or a #blessed hashtag. Many of us have chewed out some idiot we’ve never met on Facebook or Twitter. It’s not hard to see how the conservative mirror image of our own behavior built up disdain for the educated, the employed — the “normies” who seem to have it so easy — and especially Hillary Clinton, overachiever that she is. One of Feels Good Man’s most gripping segments chronicles Pepe’s evolution from hedonist slacker to smug son of a bitch — watching, chin in hand, sneering, as the world burns around him. The hate is real, and it’s out there, but not in numbers great enough to throw America to the wolves on their own. Smug Pepe captures the sentiment of so many of the rest — not necessarily right-wing die-hards, they just don’t want to be inconvenienced by change. Smug Pepe captures, in one crude image, the American complacency that tragically defined 2020, when millions chose burgers and beer at their favorite restaurant over saving lives. Smug Pepe’s self-satisfied superiority is unearned and overprivileged, requiring no effort or skill. Many of us were surprised to find it running so rampant even during a catastrophic pandemic, but we shouldn’t have been. The writing’s been on the wall for four years now. It’s not hate that got Donald Trump elected president — it’s apathy.
If this reads more like a scathing review of the Trump era than a glowing review of Feels Good Man, that’s a compliment to the wide array of sinister insights Jones’ lean, green doc touches on in just a little over an hour and a half. Nonfiction films made a stronger showing on my watchlist this year than usual — Time, Collective, Boys State, 76 Days, and Totally Under Control all spoke to the crises in public health, in racial justice, and in politics we faced this year. Somehow, though, the documentary about the hateful fate of a cartoon frog provided the most enlightening and horrifying insights about where we landed in 2020.
Pepe’s journey is all of ours — falling down the rabbit hole of the internet, finding something unknown and unknowable there, only attempting to turn back once it’s already too late.
3. THE NEST
“I pretend I’m rich.”
Last year was the year the movies ate the rich — with 2019 films like Joker, Hustlers, Knives Out, Us, Ready Or Not, Uncut Gems, and Best Picture winner Parasite all exacting revenge on the monied. It’s a simple, satisfying theme for a film. The Nest also scrapes at the wounds capitalism inflicts upon the underclass, but it’s not exactly about eating the rich — it’s more about a man cannibalizing himself, and his entire family, to give off the appearance that he’s rich enough to be eaten.
I don’t mean that literally, but such macabre imagery might be a good introduction for a tense family drama that frequently flirts with the horror genre. Sean Durkin’s long-awaited follow up to 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene isn’t a ghost story, but it does center prominently on a haunted house. Rory O’Hara (Jude Law) uproots his family from the United States back to his native England, settling into a gigantic old house that’s way too big for them. They can’t really afford it, and they don’t have the kind of lavish lifestyle meant to full such a space. The home is ostentatious but empty, just like Rory’s delusions of grandeur. It moans, it creaks, it contains ominous dark corners, and it gets awfully drafty. The O’Hara family’s new “nest” is visited by the dead — not spirits from the great beyond, but the death of their dreams.
The Nest is a ghost story after all, then — every scene thoroughly haunted by the specter of capitalism. Set in the 1980s, on the very knife’s edge between the exploratory “Me Decade” and the eventual excess of the “Greed is Good” era, Durkin’s drama explores just how miserable the pursuit of happiness — as modern society has come to define it — has made us all. Rory comes from a modest background, but like many young men before him, abandoned his roots early on to go off and find his fortune. He’s smart, handsome, charismatic, and quite persuasive. He has everything he needs to make it as a financial trader. He’s good at it. But Rory isn’t content making an honest white collar living — he’s constantly wheeling and dealing, talking up his game, writing checks he can’t cash (literally and figuratively). He’s dishonest with his wife Allison (Carrie Coon), who comes from a more comfortable class and has never really wanted much more than she has now. She’s willing to drop everything to follow Rory on his flights of fancy — but it’s only a matter of time before the bottom drops out.
Also caught in the crossfire are their kids, Ben and Sam, who need more structured parenting than either Rory or Allison is willing to provide as they contend with financial matters. Allison’s new horse doesn’t fare too well, either, serving as a frequent metaphor for the O’Hara family’s mental and financial health. It leads us to one of 2020’s most apt and haunting screen images.
The Nest is a tale about the American dream told from the interesting perspective of an outsider — an Englishman who refuses to accept his station in life, as Brits are supposed to do, embracing the American ethos instead. He fancies himself a Dickensian orphan figure midway through a rags to riches story, never daring to imagine that he might just end up falling into the middle class instead. (The horror!) We see lots of rise-and-fall stories about rich, powerful men — but it’s rarer to see one about a man who never makes it to the top. Rory is a con man, a huckster who doesn’t know when to cut the bullshit, or maybe just can’t. When pressed for details, he can never deliver, but he weaves a nice fantasy in the meantime. He walks the walk of a would-be Wolf of Wall Street; he’s got the thirst for blood, but no teeth. Try as he might, deep down he’s just a sheep. Why can’t he accept that? Well, why can’t any of us?
The past year was dismaying for anyone who believes that human lives should take precedence over profits. It revealed just how deeply in capitalism’s thrall we are. The Nest is all about this addiction to now, better, more that , as a nation, couldn’t give up in 2020 — choosing the freedom to go out for cheese fries whenever we want them over hundreds of thousands of people’s lives. Rory’s ambitious quest for abundance is one we’re all familiar with. We own cars and homes we can’t actually afford; we buy impulse buys on credit. Even our health and education come at a price most can’t pay outright. But we pretend we’re rich, live our lives as if a windfall is right around the corner. Rory’s willing to drag his family to the ends of the earth just so he can play the bigshot, eventually learning the very British lesson that greatness is more often inherited than earned. Rory is the avarice of the 80s personified; Allison tries to hold onto the simple, if slightly hedonistic, pleasures of the past, an embodiment of the previous decade.
The Nest’s most exhilarating moment sees her finally fed up with Rory’s bullshit; she gets drunk and dances her heart out to Bronski Beat’s “Small Town Boy” alone at a bar. The dread Durkin conjures throughout has us wondering what tragic fate awaits the O’Haras on this climactic night. Are they careening toward ruin, the way so many of us do in pursuit of the golden goose?
The prosperity of the “Greed is Good” era wasn’t built to last, but the hangover has stretched on and on, somehow. It’s worse now than ever. But Durkin doesn’t go for jugular — fantasizing that those of us addicted to excess might kick the habit instead. The film’s title, at first, sounds sinister, like we’re stepping into a pit of vipers. It could easily be a horror film. But a nest is also a home — not one that is bought, one that is made. Rory tows his wife and kids to a big, uninviting estate they can’t afford. They don’t belong there, but they do belong together. In the end, they already have everything they need to make their home. Nothing gold can stay, but family is forever.
“See you down the road.”
If I were putting money on it now, I’d wager that Nomadland takes home the Academy Award for Best Picture when the Oscars finally roll around in April. (Anybody want to take that bet? I’m serious.) Chloe Zhao’s roaming drama speaks just enough to the trying, painful year that was 2020, while also offering a chance to escape from it for a couple of hours.
Fern is a widow who lives out of her van. She picks up seasonal shifts at Amazon, or wherever she can find work. As a younger woman, she left her hometown, met a man, and fell in love. She made a home for herself with her husband. They stayed there, for many years. He died. She left. But she didn’t exactly move on.
As anyone who saw Zhao’s 2018 The Rider could guess, Nomadland is a spare, stoic character study. Many of the people Fern meets on her travels are played by non-professional actors — real-life nomads like Swankie, whose grizzled, grumpy exterior hides a warm heart, and the compassionate Linda May. We learn bits and pieces about Fern along the way, but more often, she’s listening to her fellow nomads as they share the stories that led them to a life on the road. They’re filled with grief and loss, but they’re also inspiring — none of these nomads has taken the bittersweet hand life dealt them lying down. They may have many more years behind them than they have ahead, but they’re determined to make those count with as many new faces and new places as they can cram in to their remaining time on this Earth.
This could be twee or overly sappy in the wrong director’s hands, but Zhao never gives in to the temptation to wring easy tears from her viewers. These people don’t feel sorry for themselves. Zhao won’t pity them either. Few have means beyond their next few meals and a tank of gas, including Fern, who begrudgingly deigns to ask a sister for financial help when she’s in a bind. They’re on the run from capitalism, defying the American dream, living well outside of the walls society builds for us. We’re meant to be boxed in. Zhao harkens back to an older version of American possibility, when living in the land of the free meant exploration, discovery, and wide open spaces. Nomadland has some roots in the Western, with Fern as its taciturn, tough, no-nonsense sheriff. But instead of rounding up bad guys, she’s defending her own right to be wild and lawless in a world that would prefer her to park her van in some driveway and stay put.
We never come to know Fern’s backstory well enough to be certain why she wanders. She had a good life and then lost it, and now refuses to accept any pale substitute. A potential romance blooms with David (David Straitharn), but Fern can’t stand the idea of staying in one place too long. She’s a wanderer. She’s only at home on the road.
It’s a curious thing, watching Nomadland in 2020. The stories of economic hardship, of illness and death, of refusal to bow down before banks and billionaires, are all painfully relatable this year. But few films are further from our own experience than this story of free-wheeling travel, of forging new friendships, of taking chances and trusting in serendipity on the road. Fern and her fellow travelers form a sense of community that’s impossible right now. They welcome strangers into their homes. They likely don’t have health insurance. The nomad lifestyle was always going to feel like a fantasy to most of us, but now it’s almost science fiction.
As Fern, Frances McDormand gives us the kind of dignified, lived-in performance we expect from her by now. It’s unshowy and vanity-free, conceding the focus of many scenes to her fellow nomads. It’s a pleasure to get to know them. But Nomadland’s most affecting moments are dialogue-free — montages depicting Fern on her travels, gazing up at the California redwoods in awe, admiring the majesty of the Badlands. Ludovico Einaudi’s haunting piano melodies from Seven Days Walking provides the film’s score, a heartbreakingly beautiful marriage of sound and image. It’s pure poetry. But the effect is compounded in 2020, a year that limited and confined us to our breaking points. Nomadland becomes an elegy for the year we lost — the trips we didn’t take, the people we didn’t meet, the freedom we didn’t feel, the time that was robbed from us.
Life is a series of moments that become memories. When we think back upon them, years disappear in the blink of an eye. How will we remember this year? Not by the places we went, or the people we saw. Perhaps we won’t remember it at all. By alternately pausing on and zooming through Fern’s life experience, Nomadland conjures up images of our own good times past, and a yearning hope for happy trails ahead. It’s a reminder of how much bigger the world is than what we saw of it this year. As time goes on, most of 2020 will fade in our memory, and scenes from the lives we lived — actually lived — will remain.
Nomadland can resonate with anyone, but perhaps it hit me harder than most. I’m a bit of a nomad myself, sometimes. In March, when the world was locking down, I was on the road myself. I was scheduled to return home on Friday the 13th, two days after the first COVID-19 death in Los Angeles County was reported. But I couldn’t bring myself to go back. The closure of my office meant I didn’t necessarily need to. I spent the next few days in Joshua Tree, staving off a looming darkness for an extra couple of days. I didn’t know how long this would last at the time, of course, but looking back, it feels like I did. Social media feeds were freaking out about toilet paper, but the desert was quiet and calming. Real life had halted. There was no pressing reason to return to the city, other than that it was my home. I fantasized about getting back in the car and driving and driving, chasing the horizon with no destination in mind. It wasn’t the last time in 2020 I’d consider that. Watching Nomadland brought me back to these last few days before my pandemic began. Now it feels like a lifetime ago. I wonder what it would have been like to see this on the big screen.
We’ve still got some hard times ahead before life resumes. But I’ll see you down the road.
1. THE INVISIBLE MAN
If you’d told me a year ago that my #1 film of 2020 would be a Blumhouse thriller made by a guy who wrote three Saw movies, I would not have believed you. Well, surprise! The year was full of unpredictable twists, including the previously unimaginable fact that I got to see just one film the old fashioned way — in a darkened theater, alongside a paying audience, the way it was meant to be seen. I watched The Invisible Man at the Arclight Hollywood on March 2, two weeks before cinemas in Los Angeles were forced to close due to the public health risk. The reviews and word-of-mouth were good, but I wasn’t expecting much. I ended up leaving the theater surprised — in the good way — and delighted by this unusually intelligent take on an old classic.
Leigh Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man begins with a heist, of sorts — a frightened young woman trying to extract herself from her own home. Her sleeping husband barely stirs, but we get the distinct sense that he’s bad news. Even in these early moments, the Hitchockian undercurrent is immediately obvious. There’s something thrilling about seeing a film that feels like it has Hitch’s fingerprints all over it, but set in the modern day. (See also: What Lies Beneath and Panic Room, both very much kindred spirits with this film.) There are tense sequences and a jump scare or two, but The Invisible Man isn’t interested in straight-up horror the way Whannell’s scripts for the Saw and Insidious franchises were. It’s rated R, but it’s not far from a PG-13. The Invisible Man is all about the suspense. We search every corner of every frame, wondering what might be lurking there that we can’t see.
Cecilia has been terrorized by her partner, wealthy optics wizard Adrian. He’s brilliant, handsome, and rich enough to have his pick of virtually any woman in any room, but he’s also a sociopath. He’s determined to control Cecilia in every way — what she eats, what she wears, her every move, her every thought. There’s enough to this setup already for a horror thriller, but then Adrian supposedly dies, leaving Cecilia a hefty trust. But he’s still in her head, and soon Cecilia begins to suspect he’s physically there, too — even though she can’t see him. In this early section, The Invisible Man puts a nifty scientific spin on a classic old ghost story. Elisabeth Moss, of course, brings her powerhouse acting chops to a story that really needs them in order to work. Imagine some bland starlet trying to carry this role, and the whole film sinks.
Like many horror films, The Invisible Man has more to its story than meets the eye. It serves as a potent metaphor for domestic abuse and sexual assault, especially as the story delves further into science fiction. Adrian’s violation of Cecilia’s mind, her sense of safety, are true to the fear thousands of women feel every day from their partners. As an unseen presence begins taunting and tormenting her, Cecilia tries to tell her friends and family that she’s in danger. No one believes her. She’s emotional, she’s hysterical, they say. How many women have tried to speak up about rape or abuse and met the same skepticism? As Adrian begins systematically isolating Cecilia from her support network, she truly does start to sound crazy. Then there’s Adrian’s desire to keep her alive, merely so she can bear his child, and male control of female bodies enters the mix. The Invisible Man contains a nesting doll of issues facing women, never resting on the same metaphor for long before it’s on to the next. Buried within a pretty fantastical premise is a whole lot of truth about men and women and society. Most striking, perhaps, is the most obvious — Adrian’s invisibility. This rich white man can get away with anything, no matter how great the crime — but he’ll never be seen in court.
All that was plenty for me to love The Invisible Man back when I saw it in early March, but like every other film on this, there’s a little something extra to it when viewed through the hindsight of 2020. Once Cecilia wrests free of Adrian’s clutches, she’s housebound, terrified to step foot outside for fear he’ll find her. Walking far enough down the driveway to grab the newspaper is a major accomplishment. This hit differently the second time I watched the film, after months of hesitation to step out in public myself.
Cecilia faces danger she can’t see, an invisible killer that could strike anywhere, at any moment. She finds herself increasingly cut off from loved ones, feels like she’s going out of her mind locked in her house. Who, in 2020, can’t relate?
The Invisible Man opts for a nifty, post-#MeToo finale, a gratifying little slice of vengeance. As much as there is to unpack in The Invisible Man relative to your typical studio thriller, it functions first and foremost as a slick, satisfying genre piece with one truly killer twist. It’s hard to measure this kind of film against, say, Mank or Lovers Rock, and rank the horror flick higher. But Psycho and Vertigo weren’t considered high art in their day, either.
(In my intro, I said I didn’t see any remakes in 2020. I stand by that — The Invisible Man shares a title with H.G. Wells’ novel, but the story and characters are all new. I must concede, however, that this isn’t completely original.)
(One more cheat I must confess — technically, my last film in a theater was a sparsely attended preview screening of Never Rarely Sometimes Always on March 5, with a Q&A that never happened because the director was concerned about the risks of air travel with the coronavirus looming. Nobody paid to be there, and it certainly wasn’t the kind of film I needed to see in a theater with a big, rapt audience. The Invisible Man was, and my experience of it matched those needs. I’ll always consider it “the last film I saw in the theater,” since it was a regular showing with a paying audience.)
(Third confession: I didn’t pay.)
I’ve seen every single one of my #1 films on the big screen, ever since I started ranking them. This year sure tried its damnedest to throw a wrench into that streak. The Invisible Man was the first 2020 film I saw. I figured something more serious would come along and unseat it from the top of the heap eventually. I watched film after film at home, waiting for the one that would enthrall, enchant, impress, inspire, or move me the way Moonlight, Never Look Away, Shame, Blade Runner 2049, 1917, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Mistress America, Zero Dark Thirty, or Boyhood did in the past decade.
It never happened. The movies were great — I love the films that made this list, and quite a few more, like Minari and The Father, might have been here in a normal year, if I’d been able to see them in a theater. The cruelest cut was Nomadland, the expansive road movie I watched in bed on my iPad. I was as transported by the film as I possibly could be under the circumstances, but it wasn’t enough. Watching Nomadland this way was almost as heartbreaking as the film itself, because I knew how much more mesmerized I’d be by it on the big screen. I’m almost certain it would have ranked at #1 if I’d seen it the way it was meant to be seen — but I didn’t. That loss, like so many other things, is collateral damage from 2020.
Films are experiences. At least, they’re supposed to be. The conditions under which we watch a movie can be as important as the work itself. The greatest film of all time can be a bore if we watch at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong person, in the wrong frame of mind. And the most atrocious cinematic debacle ever made can be a hoot at the right time, in the right place. As objective as we try to be, we can never fully shake who we are, when we are, where we are in our response to what we see.
No experience I had watching a 2020 film alone in my bedroom will stick with me the way seeing The Invisible Man on the big screen has. On a random Monday in March, I settled into my seat — in the center, toward the front, next to a friend — to watch a smarter-than-average horror thriller. The lights dimmed. The movie started. I fell in love during the opening credits, wondering: “Is this thing actually going to be good?” During one especially shocking twist, everyone around me gasped. I probably did, too. All the while, I never suspected just how precious or rare this outing would turn out to be. But now I know — I’d trade every single film I streamed this year for that one experience in a movie theater.
When I look back on the films of 2020 now, I can’t help but see what isn’t there — the ones that never opened, the dozens of nights in the theater like that one that could have been, the conversations I would have had with friends afterward. I’m seeing Tenet on opening night — the theater’s packed — we spend an hour at the bar afterward fighting over whether or not it made any sense. I’m seeing Wonder Woman 1984, because hey, why not, the first one was pretty good — it’s a matinee on a summer day — I skipped out of the office early to catch a late afternoon screening with a co-worker — we’re sipping beers and eating popcorn. I’m seeing Mank — on the big screen, of course, even though I could watch it at home for free in a couple of weeks — I imagine that this must be what it was like to see Citizen Kane in the theater back in 1941 — it’s fun, to see a new movie that feels so old, like being transported back in time. I’m seeing Nomadland in the Dome, on a screen so big, it’s like I’m the one traveling through America — I tear up, and discretely brush at my eye, hoping my date didn’t notice — I know immediately upon walking out of the theater that it was my favorite film of the year — he agrees — we decide to see it again tomorrow, because it was just that good. I’m seeing In The Heights… I’m seeing West Side Story… I’m seeing Dune…
It’s almost a whole year now that never happened… but if you squint, you can see it there.